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Boothe v. State of Louisiana Department of Transportation

Supreme Court of Louisiana

June 26, 2019

SHERRY BOOTHE AND BARRY BOOTHE, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILDREN, AMBER AND AMANDA BOOTHE
v.
STATE OF LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND DEVELOPMENT AND PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF E. BATON ROUGE

          PER CURIAM.

         In this matter, we are called upon to decide whether the district court erred in granting judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the plaintiff and in awarding damages. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the granting of the judgment notwithstanding the verdict, but amend the judgment with respect to damages.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On December 11, 2008, the Baton Rouge area experienced a snowstorm. The storm was of sufficient magnitude to result in the issuance of a winter weather advisory and closure of area schools. The schools reopened the next day as the weather improved.

         At approximately 8:00 a.m. on the morning of December 12, 2018, Sherry Boothe was operating her vehicle eastbound on Greenwell Springs Road, after bringing her daughter to school. As Ms. Boothe crossed the Comite River Bridge to return home, she lost control of her vehicle. Her vehicle crossed the median, flipped, and came to rest in the opposite lane of oncoming traffic. According to Ms. Boothe, after exiting her vehicle, she believed she had hit either ice or oil because the road was slippery.

         Lieutenant Chad Ruiz investigated the accident. He found ice in the fog line, the centerline, and the opposite fog line of the road. As a result, Lt. Ruiz closed both sides of the roadway and remained on the scene until the road was sanded.

         Subsequently, Ms. Boothe and her husband, individually and on behalf of their two minor daughters, filed the instant suit against the State of Louisiana, through the Department of Transportation and Development ("DOTD"), seeking personal injury damages arising from the accident. After extensive discovery, the matter proceeded to a two-day jury trial.

         At trial, Ms. Boothe testified she traveled the Comite River Bridge earlier that morning in heavy traffic to bring her daughter to school, and did not notice any ice the first time she crossed. Ms. Boothe admitted DOTD posted warning signs that the bridge will ice, but explained the sign is posted year-round, and the bridge contained no active warning. According to Ms. Boothe, it had snowed the day before, but the snow began to melt by midday. Ms. Boothe described the day of the accident as "cloudless and it [the snow] was almost all gone." She testified the car slid and she knew "it had to be ice or oil because it was so slippery."

         Lt. Ruiz testified he inspected the road immediately upon arrival at the accident scene and discovered "there was ice in the fog line, the centerline, and the opposite fog line." At that time, he closed both sides of the bridge and requested DOTD sand the road. Lt. Ruiz did not recall whether the side where Ms. Boothe's vehicle ended up was sanded, but stated "I think that's something I probably would have documented." Lt. Ruiz also testified he did not issue Ms. Boothe a citation.

         Conard Monroe, a highway foreman employed by DOTD, testified he did not recall the day of the accident, but admitted DOTD issued at least two work orders that day to sand the Comite River Bridge. The work orders did not indicate the time the crews were sent out, and Mr. Monroe did not recollect the time he went out. Mr. Monroe maintained throughout his testimony that when he sands bridges, he sands both sides of the bridge. However, plaintiffs' counsel went on to question Mr. Monroe about his deposition testimony, in which Mr. Monroe had stated one yard of sand was used on the bridge and that would be enough sand to cover at least one side. Mr. Monroe admitted that he stated in deposition that his crew only sanded one side of the bridge that day. However, he reiterated that he did not have any independent recollection of the incident in question, and pointed out that he sanded bridges other than the Comite River Bridge on the day of the accident. He further testified he could not think of any reason why they would have only sanded one side of the bridge and not the other.

         Patrick Batiest, a highway foreman employed by DOTD, testified he received a work order to remove trees near an area near the Comite River Bridge the day before the accident and was required to traverse the bridge. Mr. Batiest testified he did not remember whether ice was on the bridge, but maintained he would have reported it to the superintendent to request permission to sand the bridge. The next day, the day of the accident, Mr. Batiest received a second work order requesting him to sand the Comite River Bridge. At trial, Mr. Batiest could not recall whether the accident had occurred or whether the police had arrived when he sanded the bridge. Nonetheless, Mr. Batiest acknowledged his deposition testimony indicated he had not seen a flipped vehicle, but that a police officer was on the scene blocking traffic. Mr. Batiest also acknowledged that he is supposed to sand both lanes of travel when sanding a bridge.

         Albert Shields, a parish highway superintendent employed by DOTD, was the supervisor in charge of Mr. Batiest and Mr. Monroe on the day of the accident. Mr. Shields explained that when a storm is coming, DOTD places more inspectors out on the roads during the event to search for bad spots. DOTD monitors the weather through weather information received from the engineer techs, the district administrator, or from DOTD's downtown headquarters. DOTD also has a priority list of bridges in East Baton Rouge Parish that are most worrisome during a snow event, and the Comite River Bridge ranks in the top third of priority. Mr. Shields testified that at the time of the accident, state troopers would recommend highway closures, and that he did not have the authority to close a highway. He explained that if he had received a call from Mr. Batiest about ice on the Comite River Bridge, he would have gone to the bridge, made a judgment call, and called the engineering tech. According to Mr. Shields, at the time of the accident, DOTD only had one sand truck in his unit. He explained that each sanding job is a "judgment call," depending on what's on the road and the severity of the ice situation. Mr. Shields testified the foremen would not necessarily sand both sides of the bridge, explaining "[i]f they got called out during the day and only one side was froze up and the other side didn't have any accumulation of ice or snow on the road, it wouldn't be necessary to sand the other side."

         At the conclusion of trial, the jury was given the following interrogatory: "[w]as the State of Louisiana, Department of Transportation and Development at fault for Sherry Boothe's accident on December 12, 2008?" The jury responded "no." The jury was polled, confirming a 9-3 verdict. The district court subsequently signed a judgment in conformity with the jury's verdict.

         After the judgment was signed, plaintiffs filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") and an alternative motion for new trial. Following a hearing, the district court granted the motion for JNOV and rendered judgment in favor of plaintiffs in the total amount of $919, 191.20.[1] The district court also conditionally granted a new trial in favor of plaintiffs.

         DOTD appealed. On appeal, the court of appeal vacated in part, amended the judgment in part and affirmed it as amended. Boothe v. State, Dep't of Transportation & Dev., 2018-0120 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/21/18), So.3d . In affirming the granting of the motion for JNOV, the court of appeal reasoned the evidence overwhelmingly supported the district court's finding that the icy condition of the Comite River Bridge created an unreasonable risk of harm and was a substantial factor in bringing about the accident. Turning to damages, the court of appeal characterized the district court's general damage award as being "relatively high," but concluded the award did not rise to the level of an abuse of discretion. However, the court amended the district court's $600, 000 general damage award to Ms. Boothe to reflect the statutorily imposed $500, 000 cap set forth in La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1) and affirmed this award.[2]

          Upon DOTD's application, we granted certiorari to consider the correctness of this judgment. Boothe v. State of Louisiana, Dept. of Transp. & ...


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