In a recent opinion from the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal, the court considered a utility company’s appeal of a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff damages in a wrongful death action. The background facts are as follows. The plaintiff was patronizing a bar in Baton Rouge in 2013 talking with a bar employee and a bar owner. The decedent was on the rooftop when he leaned against a parapet wall and reached out to grab a wire hanging approximately one foot away from the building. Roughly 8,000 volts of electricity flowed through the wire and transferred to the decedent’s body, causing his hand to catch on fire and burn off. The decedent died as a result of the incident.
An investigation revealed that the wire was placed too close to the building and that the placement violated the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC). The decedent’s father initiated a wrongful death action against a number of defendants, including the utility company responsible for maintaining the wire. After the close of evidence, the jury returned a verdict apportioning 65 percent fault to the utility company and 35 percent fault to the decedent. The total wrongful death award to the father was $1.35 million. The jury also awarded expenses for funeral and burial costs.
The utility company admitted that the electrical line violated the NESC, but appealed, alleging that the trial court erred when it ruled that it owed the plaintiff a duty to disclose its negligence to the plaintiff after the accident. It also challenged the court’s decision to admit evidence that it described as prejudicial based on this alleged admission. The utility company claimed that these issues tainted the jury’s deliberation and the ultimate verdict in the plaintiff’s favor.
The appellate court first considered whether it was appropriate for the lower court to permit the plaintiff to provide evidence that the utility company failed to inform the plaintiff of its negligence regarding the position of the electric wire. Plaintiff’s counsel elicited testimony at trial indicating that the utility company did not inform the plaintiff after it learned that its wire was in violation of the code and plaintiff’s counsel indicated that the utility company was engaged in a cover up and that failure to disclose this evidence could be considered an admission of fault.
The appellate court rejected this position and noted that even where a defendant concedes liability, it is still up to the plaintiff to establish duty, breach, causation, and damages. The court also concluded that the utility company did not have a duty to disclose information regarding its non-compliance with the code to the plaintiff, which it learned about after the accident, and that the lower court erred in allowing the plaintiff to present evidence showing that the utility company was negligent for failing to disclose this information to the plaintiff.
The court next considered whether the erroneous admission of this evidence tainted the jury’s verdict, finding that plaintiff’s counsel conducted an improper examination of a witness and that subsequent argument from plaintiff’s counsel was an attempt to appeal to the jury’s passion and resulted in prejudice to the jury’s ability to assess damages. Accordingly, and based on evidence in the record, the appellate court reduced the jury’s wrongful death award to $450,000 and vacated the jury’s award for the plaintiff’s survival action.
If you have lost a loved one due to the negligence of another, you can file a wrongful death claim to seek damages for the loss of their love, companionship, services and society. Understanding the procedural requirements that you must follow and ensure that you assert your rights appropriately throughout the process can be incredibly daunting. At Dué Guidry Piedrahita Andrews Courrege L.C., our experienced team of Louisiana personal injury lawyers is standing by to assist you. We offer a free consultation to help you learn about your legal rights and options. Call us now at (225) 929-7481 or contact us online to get started.