Law School Case Brief
Duncan v. Kan. City S. Ry. - 773 So. 2d 670 ( La. 10/30/00)
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. Pursuant to La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2324.1, vast discretion is accorded the trier of fact in fixing general damage awards. This vast discretion is such that an appellate court should rarely disturb an award of general damages. 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.
On Sept. 11, 1994, a van owned by a church was being driven by Lloyd Mitchell, who was returning children to their homes following Sunday services at the church. The van collided with a locomotive owned by defendant Kansas City Southern Railway Company ("KCS"); the collision occurred at the intersection of a road and track maintained by KCS. Three passengers, all sisters, were in the van at the time; one passenger died, one suffered traumatic spinal cord and brain injury, and the last suffered less serious physical injuries. Plaintiffs Bobby and Nelda Duncan, the parents of the children, filed a lawsuit in Louisiana state court against KCS, Mitchell, the church and others. After trial, the jury found Mitchell and KCS liable for the accident and apportioned fault between the two. The decision was affirmed by the court of appeal. The state supreme court granted KCS certiorari to review the decision.
Was the jury's apportionment of fault between KCS and Mitchell proper?
The state supreme court affirmed in part and reversed in part the court of appeal's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The court ruled, inter alia, that while KCS complied with La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 32:169, requiring sufficient warning signs, marks, and signals at the railroad crossing, KCS failed to properly maintain the crossing site. The jury did not err in concluding KCS' failure to adequately maintain sight distances was a cause-in-fact of plaintiffs' damages. However, the jury's finding that KCS was 58.6 percent at fault and Mitchell was only 26.4 percent at fault constituted an abuse of discretion given evidence that Mitchell failed to stop at the cattleguard. The court affirmed that part of the judgment finding KCS at fault and awarding plaintiffs general damages. The court reversed the percentages of fault of KCS and Mitchell to 33.3 percent and 66.67 percent, respectively. In addition, one victim's awards of future medical expenses and of general damages were reduced to $ 10,528,722 and $ 6,000,000, respectively. On remand, the trial court was directed to confect appropriate monetary judgments based upon the fault percentages.
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