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Settoon v. Morales

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

September 27, 2019


          Appealed from the Eighteenth Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Iberville State of Louisiana Docket Number 74849 Honorable Alvin Batiste, Jr., Judge Presiding

          Scott M. Emonet Baton Rouge, LA Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellee, Patricia Settoon.

          Azelie Ziegler Shelby Sarah K. Lunn Stephanie L. Willis Baton Rouge, LA Counsel for Defendants/Appellants, Juan Morales, Plant Performance Services, LLC & Continental Casualty Company.

          Sandra S. Rester Baton Rouge, LA Counsel for Third Party Defendant/Appellee, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and April Burns.


          WHIPPLE, C.J.

         In this automobile accident case, defendants, Juan Morales, Jr., Plant Performance Services, LLC, and its insurer, Continental Casualty Company, appeal from a judgment of the trial court rendered in conformity with a jury's verdict in favor of plaintiff, Patricia Settoon, and third party defendant, April Burns. For the reasons that follow, we amend the judgment in part and affirm as amended.


         On the morning of June 25, 2014, Mrs. Settoon, left her home in Plaquemine, Louisiana, and was traveling in her Buick Enclave heading north on Louisiana Highway 30 ("Hwy. 30") to a medical appointment on Bluebonnet Boulevard in Baton Rouge. From the time she got onto Hwy. 30, Mrs. Settoon traveled behind an orange/red Chevrolet Avalanche truck driven by Ms. April Burns. Although the speed limit was 55 miles per hour on Hwy. 30, Ms. Burns and Mrs. Settoon testified that they were traveling at a speed of 40 to 45 miles per hour with a distance of approximately three to four car lengths between them.

         Mr. Morales was traveling South on Hwy. 30 in a Ford 250 extended cab truck, pulling a twenty foot trailer carrying a 6, 000-pound forklift. Mr. Morales through his employment as a project superintendent for Plant Performance Services, was in the process of transporting equipment from their office location on Highland Road to a new office location on Hwy. 30.

         When Mr. Morales arrived at the business location, he attempted to make a left turn into the first of two driveways entering the property, pulling into the path of Ms. Burns and Mrs. Settoon, who were approaching from the opposite direction. Upon Mr. Morales's vehicle and trailer turning in front of her, Ms. Burns applied her brakes and quickly looked into her rear-view mirror. She noticed Mrs. Settoon following behind her. Ms. Burns then "swerved" around Mr. Morales's trailer, which was in the northbound lane of Hwy. 30, to avoid hitting it. When Mrs. Settoon, who was following Ms. Burns, noticed Ms. Burns's brake lights come on, she applied her brakes and quickly realized that she had to take the right shoulder or she would hit Ms. Burns's vehicle from the rear. Mrs. Settoon testified that she could not "slam" on her brakes because a vehicle was following "very close" behind her. Mrs. Settoon then went to the right shoulder to avoid hitting Ms. Burns's vehicle and collided with the rear portion of Mr. Morales's trailer on the shoulder of Hwy. 30. The impact of the collision caused eight airbags in Mrs. Settoon's vehicle to deploy and ultimately rendered her vehicle a total loss as a result of the damages her vehicle sustained from the impact of the collision. Mrs. Settoon hit her head upon impact and was subsequently transported by ambulance to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales, Louisiana, for treatment.

         Mrs. Settoon subsequently filed a petition for damages against Mr. Morales, Plant Performance Services, LLC, and its insurer, Continental Casualty Company for injuries she sustained in the accident.[1] Mrs. Settoon averred therein that the accident was caused solely by the fault of Mr. Morales in: (1) failing to keep a proper lookout; (2) failing to keep his vehicle under proper control; (3) failing to properly maintain the vehicle; (4) failing to see what he should have seen and if had seen, in failing to heed; (5) failing to stop; (6) failing to maintain control; (7) operating his vehicle in a wanton and reckless manner with no regard for the rights and safety of others; and (8) making a left turn in front of Ms. Settoon's vehicle. The defendants filed an answer and third party demand against Ms. Burns and her insurer, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance ("State Farm"), contending that Ms. Burns was at fault in causing the accident herein.

         The matter ultimately proceeded to trial before a jury, and following a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict, finding Mr. Morales was solely at fault in causing the accident and awarding Mrs. Settoon the following damages:

Past Medical Expenses $36, 074.42
Future Medical Expenses $ 100, 000.00
Past Physical Pain and Suffering $65, 000.00
Future Physical Pain and Suffering $250, 000.00
Loss of Enjoyment of Life $25, 000.00

         In conformity with the jury's verdict, a judgment awarding general and special damages, with interest, in the amount of $476, 074.42 in favor of Mrs. Settoon and against defendants, was signed by the trial court on October 25, 2018. The judgment further provided that the defendants' third party claims against Ms. Burns and State Farm were dismissed with prejudice.[2]

         The defendants then filed the instant suspensive appeal from the judgment of the trial court, assigning the following as error:

1. The trial court erred in failing to fully conduct the three-step process required by Batson and its progeny, permitting the plaintiff and third party defendant to engage in purposeful discrimination in exercising peremptory challenges, which deprived defendants of a fair and impartial jury.
2. The trial court erred in failing to provide defendants with its jury instructions within a reasonable time prior to their closing arguments. This error was compounded because the instruction given was incomplete and not supported by the evidence, rendering the instructions confusing and misleading to the jury.
3. The jury committed manifest error in allocating 100 percent fault to defendant Mr. Morales when the only testimony to support this allocation was that of third party defendant Ms. Burns, and Ms. Burns's testimony was so internally inconsistent and implausible on its face that a reasonable factfinder could not credit it.
4. The jury committed manifest error in its award of damages where the special damages were not supported by the record, and the plaintiff failed to mitigate her damages.


         Peremptory Challenges - Batson (Assignment of Error Number One)

         In their first assignment of error on appeal, defendants contend that the trial court committed legal error by failing to employ the three-step process articulated in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986), alleging that "every white person had been systematically stricken by opposing counsel."[3] The defendants further contend that when presented with reasons for striking jurors, the trial court "rubber-stamped" the reasons without performing the last step in the Batson analysis, and that the reasons asserted by plaintiff and third party defendant for striking white jurors were a pretext for discrimination, where similarly situated black juror were not struck. Defendants suggest that as a result, the proper remedy is for this court to remand the matter for a new trial.

         A private litigant in a civil case may not use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors on the account of race. To do so is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Company, Inc., 500 U.S. 614, 616, HI S.Ct. 2077, 2080, 114 L.Ed.2d 660 (1991); see a]so Grayson v. R.B. Ammon and Associates, Inc., 99-2597 (La.App. 1st Cir. 11/3/00), 778 So.2d 1, 7, writs denied, 2000-3270 (La. 1/26/01), 782 So.2d 1026 and 2000-3311 (La. 1/26/01), 782 So.2d 1027.

         Batson and its progeny provide a three-step process to guide courts in evaluating a claim of racial discrimination in the voir dire process. State v. Crawford, 2014-2153 (La. 11/16/16), 218 So.3d 13, 30. First, the challenging party must make a prima facie showing that the opposing party exercised a peremptory challenge on the basis of race. To establish a prima facie case, the defendant must show: (1) the challenge was directed at a member of a cognizable group; (2) the challenge was peremptory rather than for cause; and (3) relevant circumstances sufficient to raise an inference that the prospective juror was struck on account of his being a member of that cognizable group. See Batson, 476 U.S. at 96, 106 S.Ct. at 1723. Without an inference that the prospective jurors were stricken because they are members of the targeted group, the defendant is unable to make a pri ...

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