This case arises out of a collision between a locomotive and a church van at a railroad crossing in Beauregard Parish. There were three passengers, all sisters, riding in the church van. As a result of the collision, one sister was killed, a second
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On September 11, 1994, a van owned by the Bible Baptist Church ("Church") was being driven by Lloyd Mitchell ("Mitchell"). Mitchell was returning children to their homes following Sunday services at the Church. At the intersection of East Iowa Road and the Kansas City Southern Railway Company ("KCS") track in Beauregard Parish, Louisiana, the van collided with a locomotive owned by KCS. Mitchell had three passengers, all sisters, remaining in the van at the time of the accident. The oldest passenger, twelve-year old Amanda Duncan, was killed in the accident. Her eleven-year old sister, Rachel Duncan, was thrown from the van and suffered traumatic spinal cord and brain injury. The youngest passenger, seven-year old Myranda Duncan, suffered less serious physical injuries.
The parents of the three sisters, Bobby and Nelda Duncan, instituted this suit individually and on behalf of Rachel and Myranda. The original petition, and subsequent amendments, named as defendants, KCS; the locomotive's crew; the Beauregard Parish Police Jury ("Parish") and its insurer, Titan Indemnity Company ("Titan"); Mitchell and his insurer, State Farm Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"); and the Church and its insurers, Preferred Risk Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("Preferred") and Midwest Mutual Insurance Company ("Midwest"). The Duncans alleged negligence on the part of KCS for failing to adequately clear the right-of-way adjacent to the railroad tracks causing inadequate sight line distances and for installing inadequate signage at the intersection. The plaintiffs asserted Mitchell was negligent in failing to stop at the stop sign or yield to the oncoming train. Further, the plaintiffs alleged the Parish was the owner of East Iowa Road and, as the owner, it was negligent for failing to adequately clear its right-of-way and for failing to install proper signage; namely "Stop" and "Railroad Crossing" signs.
Following a bifurcated jury trial, judgment was rendered in favor of the plaintiffs. The jury determined that KCS, Mitchell and the Parish were negligent, and that their negligence was the legal cause of the accident. Based on this finding of negligence, the jury apportioned fault as follows: KCS, 58.6% fault; Mitchell, 26.4% fault; and the Parish, 15% fault. The trial judge found the Parish did breach its duty to install proper signage, but that this breach was not a cause-in-fact of the accident since Mitchell was aware that he was approaching a railroad crossing. As such, the trial court reconciled its verdict with that of the jury and reapportioned the Parish's share of fault to the remaining defendants. Thus, KCS was found to be 68.94% at fault and Mitchell was 31.06% at fault.
The plaintiffs were awarded damages totaling $27,876,813.31. Included in the award were future medical expenses in the amount of $17,000,000.00 and general damages for physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life in the amount of 8,000,000.00 to Rachel Duncan.
The trial court's decision was appealed by KCS and Midwest.
An appellate court may not disturb the conclusions reached by a jury regarding factual matters in the absence of "manifest error" or unless a particular finding of fact was "clearly wrong." Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La.1989). This Court has announced a two-part inquiry for the reversal of the trier of fact's determinations: (1) the appellate court must find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding of the factfinder, and (2) the appellate court must also determine that the record establishes that the finding is clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. Stobart v. State, Through DOTD, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La.1993). Thus, the inquiry is whether the factual findings are reasonable, not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong. Id. If, in light of the record in its entirety, the trial court's findings are reasonable, then the appellate court may not reverse, even if convinced it would have weighed the evidence differently sitting as the trier of fact. Sistler v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 558 So.2d 1106, 1112 (La.1990).
With these principles in mind, we turn our attention to KCS' first assignment of error; that is, whether the court of appeal erred in holding the railroad liable for the accident. KCS argues that by the time of trial, only two of the plaintiffs' theories of recovery remained, inadequate signage and inadequate sight distances due to groundcover in the KCS right-of-way. According to KCS, the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support either theory. In particular, KCS argues that the evidence established that if Mitchell had stopped at the stop sign adjacent to the railway tracks, which he was statutorily obligated to do, he could have seen six hundred feet to the south and would have been able to see the approaching train. Thus, according to KCS, the driver's ability to see an approaching train prevents a finding that the conditions at the East Iowa Road crossing constitute a "dangerous trap" and, in turn, prevents a finding that the railroad is liable in the face of Mitchell's one hundred percent liability.
In order to determine whether liability exists under the facts of a particular case, our Court has adopted a duty-risk analysis. Under this analysis, plaintiff must prove that the conduct in question was a cause-in-fact of the resulting harm, the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, the requisite duty was breached by the defendant and the risk of harm was within the scope of protection afforded by the duty breached. Syrie v. Schilhab, 96-1027,
In the case at hand, we begin our duty-risk analysis by examining the duty owed by KCS to the plaintiffs. Louisiana law requires railroads to provide signage at all crossings within their control. La.Rev. Stat. Ann. § 32:169 provides:
La.Rev.Stat. Ann. § 32:169.
The evidence revealed the presence of both a stop sign and a cross buck at the East Iowa Road crossing. Thus, the record demonstrates KCS' compliance with La.Rev.Stat. Ann. § 32:169; nonetheless, the plaintiffs also allege a duty to properly maintain the right-of-way, adequate sight distances, and to post sufficient "warning signs, marks and signals commensurate with the danger of the crossing." The court of appeal determined that these alleged duties made possible a finding of negligence on the part of KCS, even though the railroad was in compliance with statutory provisions. Applying a duty-risk analysis, the court of appeal found the plaintiffs' evidence supported "a view that KCS knew of the risks created by the unique circumstances at the crossing and that adequate steps were not taken to
The plaintiffs presented the testimony of Dr. Kenneth Wayne Heathington, an expert in the fields of traffic engineering; highway design, operation, and safety; railroad highway grade crossing design, operation, and safety; accident reconstruction; and human factors. Dr. Heathington testified that the East Iowa Road crossing presented a "unique and local safety hazard." In his opinion, federal regulations would require gates with flashing light signals rather than a stop sign to make the crossing safe. He also opined that the sight distances at the crossing were inadequate; a motorist stopped at the stop sign had a fifty-percent deficiency in sight distances to the south because of the trees and vegetation in the area. In explaining the "unique and local safety hazard" created by the crossing, Dr. Heathington stated:
Based on the testimony of Dr. Heathington, the jury could have reasonably concluded that KCS had a duty to plaintiffs to protect against the unique hazard presented by the East Iowa Road crossing. Further, KCS had a duty to keep the right-of-way clear so as to ensure no deficiency in sight distances for drivers stopped at the stop sign. The next question to be addressed is whether KCS breached its duty.
The plaintiffs presented testimony of two local school bus drivers who had driven across the East Iowa Road tracks on a consistent basis. Both drivers testified that the growth of vegetation and trees in the area of the right-of-way obstructed the view to the south of the track. One driver, Mabel Yvonne Lorenz, testified that she complained to KCS employees on at least three occasions about the overgrowth of vegetation. The other driver, Miriam Massey, testified that she complained to parish road crews and her "police juryman" about the crossing. Further, KCS admitted the vegetation impeded the view to the south of the tracks when motorists are on the cattleguard, which is 62 feet from the tracks. However, KCS contends that once motorists leave the cattleguard and pass a fence row which is covered with brush, the view is unimpeded. The bus drivers' testimony and KCS' admission that the view to the south is impeded until after passing the cattleguard supports a finding that KCS breached its duty to maintain adequate sight distances.
While both plaintiffs and defendants concede Mitchell's negligence was a cause-in-fact of the accident, this does not preclude a finding that KCS' conduct was also a cause-in-fact. Clearly, if a motorist is struck by an oncoming train because his or her view was obstructed due to the railroad's failure to adequately maintain sight distances, then the railroad's conduct is a cause-in-fact of the accident. Applying this precept to the present factual
In its second assignment of error, KCS contends the trial court erred in permitting plaintiffs to present expert testimony regarding the adequacy of signage and sight distances at the crossing because federal preemption precludes such state negligence claims. According to KCS, federal funds were spent at the East Iowa Road crossing for the installation of signs, thus making the railroad responsible for adequate signage under federal law and prohibiting testimony as to its inadequacy under state law. KCS supports this proposition with the United States Supreme Court decision in CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 113 S.Ct. 1732, 123 L.Ed.2d 387 (1993), that states where "federal aid funds participated in the installation of the devices" at the crossing, federal law preempts state law claims of inadequate warning devices.
Congress enacted the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 ("FRSA") "to promote safety in every area of railroad operations and reduce railroad-related accidents and incidents." 49 U.S.C. § 20101. Under the FRSA, the Secretary of Transportation is granted authority to "prescribe regulations and issue orders for every area of railroad safety." 49 U.S.C. § 20103(a). The FRSA also contains an express preemption provision, which provide:
49 U.S.C. § 20106.
In 1973, Congress enacted the Highway Safety Act, 49 U.S.C. § 203, 87 Stat. 283, which, in part, created the Federal Railway-Highway Crossings Program ("Crossings Program"), 23 U.S.C. § 130. The Crossings Program provides funding to the States for the "cost of construction of projects for the elimination of hazards of railway-highway crossings." 23 U.S.C. § 130(a). In return, the States must "conduct and systematically maintain a survey of all highways to identify those railroad crossings which may require separation, relocation, or protective devices, and establish and implement a schedule of projects for this purpose." 23 U.S.C. § 130(d). The Secretary of Transportation has promulgated regulations implementing the Crossings Program, including, 23 C.F.R. § 646.214(b), which addresses the design of grade crossing improvements. More pertinent to the matter presently before this Court, are 23 C.F.R. §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4) addressing the adequacy of warning devices installed under the Crossings Program.
Id. at 671, 113 S.Ct. at 1741.
Ultimately, the Court concluded that the plaintiff's state tort claim was not preempted by 23 U.S.C. §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4) because the facts did "not establish that federal funds participate[d] in the installation of the [warning] devices." Easterwood, at 672, 113 S.Ct. at 1741. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question of "whether §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4) are applicable to all warning devices actually installed with federal funds." Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Shanklin, 529 U.S. 344, 120 S.Ct. 1467, 1474, 146 L.Ed.2d 374 (2000). The Court concluded that " §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4) pre-empt state tort claims concerning the adequacy of all warning devices installed with the participation of federal funds." Id., 120 S.Ct. at 1476. Guided by these principles, we turn our attention to KCS' contention that plaintiffs' state negligence claims are preempted by federal law.
A pretrial hearing was held regarding KCS' federal preemption claim at which both KCS and the plaintiffs presented exhibits. Following a review of the exhibits, some of which are letters referencing federal funds allocated for sign replacement in the area, the trial court determined that KCS failed to prove the expenditure of federal funds at the crossing so as to support a claim of federal preemption. After reviewing the evidence offered, the court of appeal found no error in the trial court's assessment of the evidence. Specifically, the court concluded:
Duncan, 747 So.2d at 668.
Having also reviewed the record, we cannot say the trial court's finding is not supportable. The evidence introduced at the pre-trial hearing does prove the existence of the 1980 project using federal funds to install or replace railroad crossing signs and crossbuck signs in the State, and in Beauregard Parish. The jurisprudence clearly establishes that state tort claims are preempted when warning devices are installed with the participation of federal funds. However, the evidence presented by the defendants does not support an unequivocal conclusion that the signage at East Iowa Road was installed or replaced with federal funds during the 1980 project. Rather, the only equipment definitely installed at the East Iowa Road crossing during the 1980 project was an inventory number. An inventory number does not meet the definition of warning devices provided in 23 C.F.R. §§ 646.204.
ALLOCATION OF FAULT
Alternatively, KCS contends the court of appeal erred in affirming the jury's allocation of fault between it and Mitchell. The jury found KCS was 58.6% at fault and Mitchell was 26.4% at fault in causing the accident.
This Court has previously addressed the allocation of fault and the standard of review to be applied by appellate courts reviewing such determinations. Finding the same considerations applicable to the fault allocation process as are applied in quantum assessments, we concluded "the trier of fact is owed some deference in allocating fault" since the finding of percentages of fault is also a factual determination. Clement v. Frey, 95-1119 (La.1/16/96); 666 So.2d 607, 609, 610. As with other factual determinations, the trier of fact is vested with much discretion in its allocation of fault. Id. Therefore, an appellate court should only disturb the trier of fact's allocation of fault when it is clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. Only after making a determination that the trier of fact's apportionment of fault is clearly wrong can an appellate court disturb the award, and then only to the extent of lowering it or raising it to the
The appellate courts determination of whether the trial court was clearly wrong in its allocation of fault is guided by the factors set forth in Watson v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Ins. Co., 469 So.2d 967, 974 (La.1985). In Watson, we said "various factors may influence the degree of fault assigned, including:
Watson, 469 So.2d at 974. These same factors guide the appellate court's determination as to the highest or lowest percentage of fault that could reasonably be assessed. Clement, 666 So.2d at 611.
Applying these factors to the case sub judice, we address whether the trial court's allocation of fault was an abuse of its discretion. The jury was presented with testimony from a witness to the accident that Mitchell did not stop at the stop sign and with his own admission that he did see the signs and was aware of the railroad crossing. However, Mitchell's deposition testimony never fully answered the question of whether he stopped for the stop sign, the cattleguard, or both. There was no evidence that Mitchell was speeding or intoxicated at the time of the accident, and given the fact that he was driving children home from church services, it is safe to assume he was not attempting to outrun the locomotive. He said he never saw the train, thus his negligent conduct of proceeding across the tracks was more than likely inadvertent.
Admittedly, failing to stop for a stop sign at a railroad crossing creates a great risk of harm. Further, the jurisprudence imposes upon drivers a duty to look and listen for possible oncoming trains before traversing the crossing. Glisson v. Missouri Pac. R.R. Co., 246 La. 470, 476, 165 So.2d 289, 291 (1964). While the law does not require motorists to stop at every railroad crossing, Mitchell was required by law to stop for the stop sign at this crossing. His failure to do so was negligent and the jury was correct in allocating fault to his conduct. Nonetheless, the unique situation created by this particular crossing militates against finding Mitchell solely at fault. Testimony was presented that the East Iowa Road crossing presented a unique situation since less than 200 feet after crossing the railroad tracks, there is a stop sign at the intersection of East Iowa Road and Highway 27. Approximately, 80 feet before the crossing there is a rough cattleguard requiring drivers to stop or slow to cross. Thus, before reaching the railroad crossing, drivers have to slow down or stop for the rough cattleguard, then proceed another 40 feet and stop for the stop sign before the crossing. When drivers are slowed down or stopped for the cattleguard, the view of the tracks is obstructed by ground cover. At the stop sign, the view is unobstructed; however, the expert testified that most drivers have focused their attention on the intersection of Highway 27 by the time they reach this stop sign.
The jury also heard testimony that KCS knew of the unique situation posed by this crossing before the accident, they had knowledge of prior accidents at the crossing and other complaints about the crossing. KCS took no steps to remove the groundcover or to install additional warning
Finally, we turn our attention to the last assignment of error raised by KCS, whether the jury's award of damages was so excessive as to be set aside. According to KCS, the jury was prejudiced in its award by the plaintiffs' bringing Rachel Duncan in and out of the courtroom during the trial. Sympathy for this quadriplegic child resulted in the general damage award of $8 million dollars and the $17 million dollar award for future medical care. KCS contends these awards are unprecedented, grossly excessive, and not supported by the evidence. Further, KCS contends the awards to the parents for the wrongful death of Amanda are excessive, and the awards to Myranda for mental anguish and negligent infliction of emotional distress are also excessive.
General damages are those which may not be fixed with pecuniary exactitude; instead, they "involve mental or physical pain or suffering, inconvenience, the loss of intellectual gratification or physical enjoyment, or other losses of life or life-style which cannot be definitely measured in monetary terms." Keeth v. Dept. of Pub. Safety & Transp., 618 So.2d 1154, 1160 (La.App. 2 Cir.1993). Vast discretion is accorded the trier of fact in fixing general damage awards. La. Civ. Code art. 2324.1; Hollenbeck v. Oceaneering Int., Inc., 96-0377, p. 13 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/8/96); 685 So.2d 163, 172. This vast discretion is such that an appellate court should rarely disturb an award of general damages. Youn v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 623 So.2d 1257, 1261 (La. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1114, 114 S.Ct. 1059, 127 L.Ed.2d 379 (1994). Thus, the role of the appellate court in reviewing general damage awards is not to decide what it considers to be an appropriate award, but rather to review the exercise of discretion by the trier of fact. Youn, 623 So.2d at 1260. As we explained in Youn:
Id. at 1261.
The initial inquiry, in reviewing an award of general damages, is whether the trier of fact abused its discretion in assessing
In the present case, the trial court awarded $8 million in general damages to Rachel Duncan for her physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life. According to KCS, this award far exceeds the highest reasonable awards in cases involving similar injuries. However, our initial determination is not guided by awards for similar injuries; rather, our initial inquiry is whether the instant award is beyond that which a reasonable trier of fact could assess for the effects of the particular injury to the particular plaintiff under the particular circumstances. KCS contends the jury's award was based on sympathy for Rachel, who was brought in and out of the courtroom during the trial in a special, self-propelled wheelchair. While the sight of Rachel in her self-propelled wheelchair may have elicited some sympathetic feelings from the jury, the evidence presented more than amply demonstrates the effects of this accident on Rachel Duncan.
Prior to the accident, Rachel was an active eleven-year-old girl, she enjoyed outdoor activities, she was excelling academically in her sixth-grade class, she had many friends, and she was planning to attend college someday. As a result of the accident, Rachel's whole life has changed. The injuries she sustained when she was thrown from the church van have left her a quadriplegic who is totally dependent on others for all her care needs. Rachel's medical diagnosis and impairments include C5 ASIA A tetraplegia, traumatic brain injury, scoliosis, a tracheostomy, neurogenic bladder, neurogenic bowel, muscle spasms, contractures of upper and lower extremities, pulmonary insufficiency, a non-functioning left lung, left-sided hearing loss, severe headaches, anorexia, severe malnutrition, and depression. She also suffers from recurrent pulmonary infections, recurrent bladder infections, and is in constant danger of developing decubitus ulcers and autonomic dysreflexia.
In addition to having to cope with the injuries she sustained in the accident, Rachel is also coping with the fact that her older sister was killed in the accident and her younger sister was injured in the accident. She is no longer able to attend school with her friends, she spends the majority of her day in either her bed or her wheelchair, she can no longer go on the family fishing and camping trips she enjoyed before the accident, and she is aware of the effect her injuries have had on her family. While Rachel still plans on attending college, she will not be able to go off to college like other college freshmen. Even if she decides to move out of her parents home when she becomes an adult, she will require a specially designed home and 24-hour care. Even when all these factors are considered, we find that the general damage award of $8,000,000 is excessive and the trial court abused its discretion in fixing the general damage award to Rachel Duncan. A review of cases involving similar injuries reveals that the highest amount that could reasonably be awarded under the facts of this case is $6,000,000.
Bobby and Nelda Duncan
KCS also contends the general damage awards to Bobby and Nelda
KCS further contends that the $250,000 for mental anguish and $100,000 for negligent infliction of emotional distress awarded to Myranda Duncan are excessive. According to KCS, the highest reasonable award for mental anguish resulting from a car accident is $25,000 and $15,000 for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Myranda's physical injuries resulting from the accident were minor in comparison to her sisters; nonetheless, she suffered serious psychological injuries. Dr. Monlezun testified that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and that she suffered from survivor's guilt. He analogized Myranda's survivors guilt to that suffered by combat veterans stating that:
Dr. Monlezun recommended that Myranda receive period counseling at these critical stages in her development. Further, both Dr. Monlezun and Mrs. Duncan remarked on Myranda's fear in riding in the family van after the accident. Given
Future Medical Expenses
Lastly, KCS contends that the $17 million award for Rachel's future medical care is clearly excessive. According to KCS, if this award is invested conservatively so as to obtain only a five percent return, it would still produce an annual interest income of $850,000. Future medical expenses must be established with some degree of certainty. Awards will not be made in the absence of medical testimony that they are indicated and setting out their probable cost. Bly v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins., 589 So.2d 495 (La.App. 5 Cir.1991) quoting Guillory v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 448 So.2d 1281 (La.1984).
In the matter at hand, the jury was presented with medical testimony by plaintiffs', as well as, defendant's experts. Robert Voogt, Ph.D., plaintiffs' expert in the care of individuals with catastrophic injuries, testified regarding the life care plan prepared by Robert Voogt & Associates ("Voogt Plan"). The Voogt Plan provides for medical evaluations and treatment by specialist in the following fields: psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery, pulmonology, pediatrics (until age 18), internal medicine, orthopedic surgery, and urology. The plan also recommends therapeutic evaluations by an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and a speech therapist. Further, the plan provides for a treatment program with individual counseling, family counseling, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, weekly review by a registered nurse ("RN"), and 24-hour attendant care by either a licensed practical nurse ("LPN") or a RN. The LPN or RN would be provided by a home health agency, and their activities would be supervised by a case manager. Dr. Voogt based his plan on Rachel having the same life expectancy as persons her age without spinal cord injuries, that is 81 years.
The jury also heard testimony from Terry Arnold, defendant's expert in rehabilitation nursing and life care planning, regarding the life care plan prepared by her agency, Life Care Consultants, Inc.
Having reviewed the life care plans prepared for Rachel Duncan, it seems the variations in cost can be primarily attributed to the recommendations for attendant care. The Voogt Plan recommends 24-hour attendant care by either a LPN, a RN, or a combination of the two. According to Dr. Voogt, Rachel requires sterile and invasive procedures and Louisiana law prohibits home health aides performing such procedures. Thus, a home health agency would be required to send either a LPN or RN to care for Rachel. Dr. Voogt estimates 24-hour LPN care to be $267,686.00 annually; 24-hour RN care is estimated at $315,866.00 annually; and 12-hour LPN/12-hour RN care is estimated at $291,776.00 annually. These amounts are based on the present wages paid for LPN and RN care by two home health agencies in the Lake Charles area. The first agency pays LPNs $27.00 per hour and RNs are paid $32.00 per hour. The other agency pays LPNs $22.00 per hour and RNs are paid $28.00 per hour.
Based on the Voogt Plan, the plaintiffs' expert economist, Bernard Pettingill, Ph. D., calculated the present values for future medical expenses with LPN care at $22.00 per hour, using a 6% discount rate, offset by 6% inflation, and based on a life expectancy of 57 years to be $10,528,722. According to Dr. Pettingill, because of increases in medical costs and inflation, these amounts would be completely exhausted at the end of Rachel's life expectancy.
Michael Kurth, Ph.D., defendant's economist, calculated the present value for future medical expenses based on the Life Plan using a 2.5% discount rate, and based on a 57-year life expectancy to be $2,165,855.00. Dr. Kurth allocated $140,160.00 for attendant care in 1998 and $36,000.00
The jury also heard testimony from Dr. Frank Lopez, plaintiffs expert in physical medicine and rehabilitation and Rachel's treating physician. He recommended 24-hour LPN care with RN supervision from a home health agency for Rachel. Dr. Lopez testified that he agreed with Dr. Voogt's testimony that the invasive nature of certain procedures required a LPN as opposed to a home health aide, and that the Voogt Plan was the more reasonable plan.
The jury was presented with the deposition testimony of Dr. Kathryn Zidek, Director of Pediatric Rehabilitation Program at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research ("TIRR"). Dr. Zidek performed a comprehensive evaluation of Rachel in January, 1998, and recommended skilled care (either LPN or RN) until Rachel's present medical problems are corrected. According to Dr. Zidek, once Rachel's decubitus ulcers are healed, her normal skin integrity is restored, and she has a better state of nutritional health, then unskilled care may be used. Dr. Zidek opined that correcting these problems would take at least one year.
Having reviewed the record before us, it seems clear the jury based the award of $17 million on the testimony of plaintiffs' experts, Drs. Voogt and Pettingill. This award allows for the life-expectancy of 81 years. As an appellate court, we are bound to resolve cases based on the record before us. But, based on this record and readily available scientific data, we conclude that the lower courts have erroneously allowed and adopted inaccurate expert testimony given the facts at issue.
In the case at hand, the trial court adopted expert testimony regarding Rachel's life expectancy and the costs of future medical care based on this life expectancy. Plaintiff's experts testified that Rachel has a life expectancy of 81 years. Based on our review of the record, we find that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding of this 81-years life expectancy, and this finding was manifestly erroneous. Stobart, supra, at 880. This estimate is based on the latest figures for persons of the same race, sex, and age in life expectancy tables published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Thus, no consideration is given to the fact that Rachel has a spinal cord injury which significantly impacts her life expectancy. In fact, an 81-year life expectancy far exceeds any estimated life-expectancy for persons with spinal cord injuries.
The term "spinal cord injury" refers to any injury of the neural elements within the spinal canal. Spinal cord injuries are classified as either complete (nerve damage obstructs every signal coming from the brain to body parts below the injury) or incomplete (only some of the signals are obstructed). Paraplegia denotes a loss of feeling and movement in the lower parts of the body, while tetraplegia, formerly called quadriplegia, denotes a loss of feeling and movement in both the upper and lower parts of the body. Overall, 85% of persons with spinal cord injuries who survive the first 24-hours are still alive ten years later. In the past several decades, long-term survival rates for persons with spinal cord injury have improved dramatically, but they are still below normal, that is, the life expectancy of a person from the general U.S. population of the same age, gender, and race who does not have a spinal cord injury.
LIFE EXPECTANCY (YEARS)Current Age Normal Life C1-C4 C5-C8 T1-S5 Frankel Expectancy* (Frankel Grade (Frankel Grade (Frankel Grade Grade D A,B,C) A,B,C) A,B,C) 5 70.8 45.0 52.0 59.5 63.0 10 65.9 40.5 47.3 53.7 58.2 15 61.0 36.1 42.6 49.0 53.4 20 56.3 32.8 38.6 44.8 49.0 25 51.6 29.9 34.7 40.8 44.7 30 46.9 26.8 30.7 36.7 40.5
Rachel Duncan has been diagnosed as a C5 tetraplegic and her age at the time of trial was 14.6 years. Looking at the table, a 15-year old in the C5 neurologic category has a life expectancy of 42.6 years. The record does include accurate evidence with reference to Rachel's life expectancy. Dr. Zidek's predicted 57-year life expectancy for Rachel is more realistic than the 81-year life expectancy predicted by Dr. Voogt. Furthermore, the 57-year life expectancy is also the more scientifically accurate prediction. Considering that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that Rachel's life expectancy is more accurately predicted at 57 years, we are of the opinion that the award of $17 million for future medical expenses was manifestly erroneous. While there is expert testimony supporting this award, the lower courts were clearly wrong in accepting testimony based on the inaccurate life expectancy of 81-years.
Having determined the 57-year life expectancy to be more realistic, we turn to the expert testimony on future medical expenses. The jury heard testimony from two experts who prepared life care plans for Rachel. As previously mentioned, the plans recommend the same care for Rachel, with the only exception being the type of attendant care recommended. Where the testimony of expert witnesses differ, it is the responsibility of the trier of fact to determine which evidence is the most credible. Sistler v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 558 So.2d 1106, 1114 (La.1990). Thus, it seems the trier of fact found the evidence presented in the Voogt Plan was the most credible. Based on the Voogt Plan, Dr. Pettingill calculated the present values for future medical expenses with LPN care at $22.00 per hour and based on a life expectancy of 57 years to be $10,528,722. Accordingly, we reduce the award of future medical expenses to $10,528,722.
For the aforementioned reasons, the decision of the court of appeal insofar as it finds KCS at fault and in the awarding of general damages is affirmed. We reverse the percentages of fault of KCS and Mitchell, to 33.3% and 66.67%, respectively, and the award of future medical expenses for Rachel Duncan is reduced to $10,528,722. We also reduce the award of general damages to Rachel Duncan to $6,000,000. The case is remanded to the trial court to confect appropriate monetary judgments based upon the fault percentages.
VICTORY, J., concurs in result and assigns reasons.
KNOLL, J., concurs in part and dissents in part and with reasons.
TRAYLOR, J., concurs for the reasons assigned by VICTORY, J.
Had I been the trier of fact, I probably would not have found liability on the part of defendant, Kansas city Railway Co. However, based on the record in this case, I cannot say that the jury committed manifest error in finding the railroad partially at fault.
Accordingly, I respectfully concur in the result.
KNOLL, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part.
I concur in the majority's conclusion that the jury manifestly erred in finding that Rachel's life expectancy was 81-years. Instead, the record evidence preponderated that her life expectancy was to the age of 57 years. This finding necessitated a reduction in the medical damage award to Rachel. However, I dissent from the majority's reduction in Rachel's general damage award and its reapportionment of fault. In my view, the jury's general damage award to Rachel and the apportionment of fault by the trial judge were clearly supported by the record and, therefore, were not manifestly erroneous.
Reapportionment of Fault
The majority correctly cites the factors contained in Watson v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Ins. Co., 469 So.2d 967 (La.1985), in its discussion of fault, but fails to properly apply the factors to the facts of this case. In my view, if the Watson factors were properly applied to the facts of this accident, the jury's apportionment of fault would have been affirmed. This can easily be discerned from the following analysis of these factors.
Whether the conduct resulted from inadvertence or involved an awareness of the danger. Any extenuating circumstances which might require the actor to proceed in haste, without proper thought.
The majority finds that "his (Mitchell) negligent conduct of proceeding across the tracks was more than likely inadvertent." Duncan v. Kansas City So. RR Co., No. 00-0066, slip op. at 11; (emphasis added). On the other hand, the record shows that "KCS knew of the unique situation posed by this crossing before the accident, they had knowledge of prior accidents at the crossing and other complaints about the crossing." Duncan, slip op. at 12. Thus, the evidence shows that KCS's acts of negligence were clearly paramount in comparison to Mitchell's inadvertent negligent acts.
How great a risk was created by the conduct.
The risk created by KCS's conduct was overwhelmingly dangerous, as shown by the majority's own appreciation of the evidence:
The significance of what was sought by the conduct. The capacities of the actor, whether superior or inferior.
It can hardly be gainsaid that KCS was the superior actor. KCS is a well established railroad giant with the financial resources and manpower to employ the appropriate studies, measures, devices, and expertise to operate trains nationally across thousands of miles of track. KCS with its attendant superior capabilities is a profit-driven enterprise that should absorb
The evidence shows that a vehicle stopped 50 feet from the railroad crossing had a sight distance of only approximately 200 feet down the track to the south because of ground cover. The KCS train was traveling 42 m.p.h. coming from the south on the day of the accident. At 42 m.p.h. the train would have reached the crossing in 3.2 seconds from, a distance of 200 feet—not much time for reaction.
In finding KCS at fault, the majority states: "KCS took no steps to remove the ground cover or to install additional warning devices." Id. Notwithstanding these paramount acts of negligence by KCS, the majority concludes: "We can, however, say that KCS was no more at fault than Mitchell and the trial court's allocation of fault, 68.4% to KCS and 31.06% to Mitchell, was clearly wrong." Id. This conclusion is out of sync with the majority's own reliance on the paramount acts of negligence by KCS in its finding of liability and fault against KCS. This reapportionment of fault flies in the face of well established jurisprudence from this court that instructs our courts of appeal to refrain from doing this very kind of Judging: "If, in light of the record in its entirety, the trial court's findings are reasonable, then the appellate court may not reverse, even if convinced it would have weighed the evidence differently sitting as the trier of fact." Duncan, slip op. at 3 (citing Sistler v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 558 So.2d 1106, 1112 (La.1990)). Clearly, the trial court's apportionment of fault should have been affirmed by this court.
Reduction of Rachel's General Damages
In reducing Rachel's general damage award, the majority finds it excessive and states: "A review of the cases involving similar injuries reveals that the highest amount that could reasonably be awarded under the facts of this case is $6,000,000." Duncan, slip op. at 15 and footnote 6 (referencing a 1993 case involving a 15-year old boy). There are several major errors in the majority's analysis on this issue which also render this conclusion contrary to our well established jurisprudence.
The majority fails to heed that the jury assessed the effects of Rachel's quadriplegic injury on this 11 year old girl (at the time of the accident) given the paramount acts of negligence by KCS and inadvertent acts of negligence by Mitchell. There is no question that the jury had sympathy for Rachel as it would be inhumane not to. But evidence more compelling than sympathy was presented to the jury that showed Rachel as the beautiful, young girl she was, and is, whose beauty, personality, intelligence, and wholesomeness was reflected in a review of yet a cold record. It is clear from the record that she has not given up on life in spite of her quadriplegic condition. She now has her hopes and dreams as a quadriplegic. Simply stated, the jury was faced with a fantastic, young girl who suffered horrendous injuries and based its award for the particular injury for this particular tort victim under these circumstances.
As a woman, Rachel's injury will affect her childbearing ability unless the medical sciences can miraculously intervene. Her injuries have invaded every facet and emotional aspect of a woman's life, but the most serious impact of Rachel's injury is her loss of life expectancy. It is sad that we have to declare this, but this statement
For the foregoing reasons, I respectfully dissent.
in 23 C.F.R. § 646.204, which in pertinent part provides that: