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La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2324 provides that in non-intentional cases, liability for damages caused by two or more persons shall be a joint and divisible obligation. Each joint tortfeasor shall not be liable for more than his degree of fault and shall not be solidarity liable with any other person for damages attributable to the fault of that other person. Article 2324 abolishes solidarity among non-intentional tortfeasors, and makes each non-intentional tortfeasor liable only for his own share of the fault, which must be quantified pursuant to La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2323.
George Dumas was riding a bicycle in Chemin-a-Haut State Park near Bastrop, Louisiana, when he allegedly hit a pothole in the park road. As a result of the alleged accident, Dumas was thrown from his bicycle and sustained a large laceration to his right forehead and scalp. Dumas was transported to Morehouse General Hospital where he received medical treatment for his wounds. Several hours after arriving at the hospital, Mr. Dumas died. Subsequently, Dumas’ wife and three adult children filed a wrongful death and survival action against the State of Louisiana through its Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism and its Department of Transportation and Development (collectively referred to as the "State"), alleging the pothole presented an unreasonable risk of harm, the State had both constructive and actual knowledge of the defect, and the State failed to cure the defect in the road or warn of its presence. The State filed an amended answer, alleging as an affirmative defense that the death of Dumas resulted solely from the medical negligence of physicians and staff at Morehouse General Hospital. In response to the State's amended answer, plaintiffs filed a motion to strike on grounds that the allegations added therein were immaterial, irrelevant, and insufficient. Specifically, plaintiffs argued that the amended answer sought to introduce factual allegations and evidence of medical malpractice in violation of the jurisprudential rules set forth in Weber v. Charity Hosp. of La., 475 So. 2d 1047 (La. 1985) and Lambert v. United States Fidelity & Guar. Co., 629 So. 2d 328 (La. 1993), that, as a matter of policy, the original tortfeasor was the legal cause of any subsequent injury which might result from inadequate medical treatment. In opposition, the State argued the 1996 legislative changes to La. C.C. arts. 2323 and 2324 abolished solidarity liability in cases involving negligent acts and, with it, abolished the action for contribution among joint tortfeasors. The State contended the analysis underlying the Weber and Lambert cases was no longer applicable in light of the 1996 amendments. The trial court granted the motion to strike, and the decision was affirmed by the second circuit court of appeal. The state supreme court granted the State’s application for certiorari.
In light of the 1996 amendments, did the lower courts err in applying the doctrines laid down in the Weber and Lambert cases to ultimately grant plaintiffs’ motion to strike the State’s amended answer?
The Court noted that the policies upon which Weber and Lambert were based have simply been changed by the legislature. Because it was error for a court to allow its own policy determination to override the policy determination made by the legislature, the Court ruled that it cannot allow the policy-based rule of Weber and Lambert to prevent the State from presenting a defense to which it was clearly entitled under the amendments to La. C.C. arts. 2323 and 2324(B). According to the Court, the factfinder in the instant case was required to determine the percentage of fault of all persons causing injury to plaintiffs. If the factfinder found that plaintiffs' damages were caused by more than one person, then each joint tortfeasor was only liable for his degree of fault and cannot be held solidarily liable with another tortfeasor for damages attributable to that other tortfeasor's fault. The State in this case was therefore entitled to present, as an affirmative defense, evidence relating to the fault of another person it believed caused injury to plaintiffs. Consequently, the Court found that plaintiffs' motion to strike the State's amended answer on the basis that it was immaterial, irrelevant, and insufficient should be denied.