Christy v. Atl. Specialty Ins. Co.

Decision Date03 March 2022
Docket NumberNUMBER 2021 CA 0942
Citation341 So.3d 614
Parties Dionne CHRISTY and Demond Chatman v. ATLANTIC SPECIALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, Lionel Franklin, Jr., and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company
CourtCourt of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US

Christopher W. Deagano, Spencer H. Calahan, Parker A. Deagano, Baton Rouge, LA, Marcus J. Plaisance, Mark D. Plaisance, Prairieville, LA, Counsel for Plaintiffs/Appellants, Dionne Christy and Demond Chatman

Ashley M. Caruso, Mary G. Erlingson, Judson G. Banks, Lee J. Ledet, Baton Rouge LA, Counsel for Defendants/Appellees, Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company, Lionel Franklin, Jr., and the City of Donaldsonville

BEFORE: GUIDRY, HOLDRIDGE, AND CHUTZ, JJ.

GUIDRY, J.

The plaintiffs, Dionne Christy and Demond Chatman, appeal awards for damages following a bench trial. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This case arises from an automobile accident, which occurred on April 20, 2018, when Lionel Franklin, Jr. rear-ended a vehicle being operated by Dionne Christy in which Demond Chatman was a passenger.1 The case went to a bench trial on February 25, 2021, and the trial court subsequently awarded general and special damages to the plaintiffs. A judgment was signed on April 1, 2021. This appeal followed regarding the plaintiffs’ awards for general damages (past and future) and future medical expenses.

ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR
1. Unrefuted evidence, in the form of medical records and testimony from her treating physicians, proves Dionne Christy suffered a disc bulge or herniated disc for which she sought treatment over nearly three years between the April 2018 collision and the February 2021 trial. Likewise, unrefuted evidence, in the form of medical records, testimony from Ms. Christy's treating physician, and a life care plan proves she will require future medical treatment at a cost of $89,777.15. The trial court awards of $15,000 for past general damages, $5,000 for future general damages, and $10,000 for future medical expenses are abusively inadequate and fail to make Ms. Christy whole.
2. Unrefuted evidence, in the form of medical records and testimony from his treating physicians, proves Demond Chatman suffered cervical facet syndrome for which he sought treatment over a period of nearly three years between the date of collision and the trial. Similarly, unrefuted evidence, in the form of medical records, testimony from Mr. Chatman's treating physician, and a life care plan, proves he will require future medical treatment, at a minimum, costing $86,966.25. The trial court awards of $5,000 for past general damages, $2,500 for future general damages, and $5,000 for future medical expenses are abusively inadequate and fail to make Mr. Chatman whole.
STANDARD OF REVIEW

An appellate court's role in reviewing a general damages award, one which may not be fixed with pecuniary exactitude, 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. Guillory v. Lee, 09-0075, pp. 14-15 (La. 6/26/09), 16 So. 3d 1104, 1117. Vast discretion is accorded the factfinder in fixing general damage awards.2 Thus, an appellate court should rarely disturb an award of general damages. Kaiser v. Hardin, 06-2092, p. 9 (La. 4/11/07), 953 So. 2d 802, 809 (per curiam ).

In order to reverse a trial court's determination of fact, an appellate court must review the record in its entirety and (1) find that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding, and (2) further determine that the record establishes that the factfinder is clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. Green v. K-Mart Corp., 03-2495, p. 3 (La. 5/25/2004), 874 So. 2d 838, 842.

Likewise, when reviewing a jury's factual conclusions with regard to special damages,3 an appellate court must engage in the aforementioned two-step process, based on the record as a whole. In order to disturb the factfinder's award of special damages, there must be no factual basis for the factfinder's determination and the finding must be clearly wrong. See McDowell v. Diggs, 17-0755, p. 9 (La. App. 1st Cir. 10/3/18), 264 So. 3d 489, 496, citing Kaiser, 06-2092 at p. 12, 953 So. 2d at 810. In accordance with well-established law, much discretion is left to the judge or jury in its assessment of quantum, both general and special damages. Guillory, 09-0075 at p. 14, 16 So. 3d at 1116.

DISCUSSION

In the present matter, the trial court awarded Ms. Christy $31,844.06 for past medical expenses, $15,000.00 for past general damages, $10,000.00 for future medical expenses, and $5,000.00 for future general damages. Mr. Chatman was awarded $38,330.77 for past medical expenses, $5,000.00 for past general damages, $5,000.00 for future medical expenses, and $2,500.00 for future general damages.4 The trial court heard testimony from a number of witnesses.5

Testimony of Ms. Christy

Ms. Christy stated that she first felt pain the day after the accident—"a horrible headache" and "just body started hurting." Following the accident, Ms. Christy went to the hospital for assessment, and shortly after the incident, went to Dr. Richards for chiropractic care. She was referred to Dr. Graham after an MRI revealed a disc bulge. When questioned about her pain, Ms. Christy first affirmed that she was still having problems with her lower back. She then stated that she has problems with her whole back and neck. She then explained, in regards to her back, that she has mid-back pain. Ms. Christy stated that everything bothers her and that the pain affects her life.

On cross-examination, Ms. Christy admitted, after first stating that she does not travel, that she does travel for fun, even going parasailing. She agreed that she completed/graduated from two school programs. Ms. Christy stated that she had been in no recent accidents, and had no previous treatment for her neck or back. She admitted that she received no restrictions or limitations from a doctor. In addition, Ms. Christy agreed, after the accident, that she noticed only a dent in the middle of her car's bumper. Ms. Christy also admitted that there was a "break" in her care with Dr. Graham, as she was doing well at the time.

Testimony of Mr. Chatman

Mr. Chatman testified that he had been involved in a few accidents prior to April 20, 2018, having received neck and back treatment following a 2014 accident where he was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler. Mr. Chatman explained that he sought treatment at the hospital on the day of the April 2018 accident after receiving his haircut; he felt a lot of pain in his neck.

Mr. Chatman was seen by Dr. Richards for chiropractic care and later referred to Dr. Graham for pain management. Mr. Chatman stated that he still has neck pain. On cross examination, Mr. Chatman admitted that as a result of the 2014 accident he complained of neck pain. He also admitted he ran a red light in January of 2018 and was subsequently "T-boned" by a vehicle. Mr. Chatman testified that he received no limitations from a doctor, and was able to work and go out on weekends with friends after the April 2018 accident.

Testimony of Dr. Micah Richards

Dr. Richards, a chiropractor, first saw Ms. Christy on April 24, 2018. At that time, Ms. Christy complained of neck, back, and shoulder pain. Ms. Christy was last seen by Dr. Richards on February 18, 2020. After treatment, according to Dr. Richards, Ms. Christy's range of motion had improved, although she continued to have headaches and neck and thoracic pain. Dr. Richards testified that Ms. Christy's lumbar spine responded well to treatment.

Dr. Richards also first saw Mr. Chatman on April 24, 2018. At that time, Mr. Chatman complained of back pain, neck pain, and pain in his left hand. Mr. Chatman received regular chiropractic care from Dr. Richards, and was last seen by Dr. Richards on December 3, 2020.

Testimony of Dr. Sean Graham

Dr. Graham, treating physician and pain management doctor, testified as follows. He first saw Ms. Christy on June 18, 2018. Ms. Christy complained of neck pain and pain in the upper thoracic spine, which is between the shoulder blades. After examination, Dr. Graham found Ms. Christy to be neurologically intact with no neuro deficit, no weakness, no loss of reflexes, and no sensory deficit. According to Dr. Graham, Ms. Christy had a disc bulge at C3-4. She also had a disc bulge at C6-7. In the thoracic spine, Ms. Christy had a disc bulge at T3-4. She had no spinal cord or nerve root impingement.

Dr. Graham explained that Ms. Christy was diagnosed with discogenic pain. She received four epidural steroid injections while under his care. When asked if he believed more probable than not that Ms. Christy's condition was permanent, Dr. Graham stated, "So the disc is never going to go back to totally normal. So in regards to, is the condition permanent of the disc bulge is, yes, that's permanent. What we hope is that over time maybe she gets some improvement." Dr. Graham also noted that the pain from the disc bulge could stop returning. He stated that he believed Ms. Christy would need future medical treatment, more likely than not.

On cross-examination, Dr. Graham agreed that discogenic pain is "localized pain" surrounding specific disc bulges. He explained that his recommendation for future medical treatment was based upon what he would "expect to occur based on treatment of other patients." Dr. Graham stated there was no certainty that Ms. Christy's pain was going to continue. He agreed that disc bulges occur for many reasons. He admitted that the only abnormal finding concerning Ms. Christy was the disc bulge at T3-4, which is in the middle of the shoulder blades. Regarding future medical treatment, Dr. Graham noted that he did not issue a detailed report for Ms. Christy, but spoke to Mr. Gisclair, a life planning expert, about her future medical treatment, which he recommended occur for the next five to eight...

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