Tag: injury

Louisiana Court Limits Use of Biomechanical Expert Testimony

The use of biomechanical expert testimony in Louisiana courts has evolved over the last few years. A recent decision from the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal provides an example of the changing standards for the admissibility of biomechanical expert testimony and its relation to medical causation.

In Pollard v. 21st Century Centennial Ins. Co., 21-65 (La. App. 5 Cir. 12/23/21), 334 So. 3d 1013, writ denied, 2022-00163 (La. 4/20/22), the defendants argued that the underlying accident involved a minor rear-end impact not likely to cause injury. The defendants hired a biomechanical expert who was also a medical doctor. The expert performed an “impact severity analysis” to determine the force of impact in the collision.

The expert concluded that the accident involved a minimum damage collision; he relied upon the “force reflection method” and test data at his crash test facility to determine how fast the rear-ending vehicle would have traveled to cause the damage present on the plaintiff’s vehicle. Based upon his findings, the expert opined that the plaintiff was not seriously injured in the collision. He went further to testify that specific injuries could not have been caused by the forces involved.

The Fifth Circuit noted the same expert was previously excluded in a case that went to the Louisiana Supreme Court in Blair v. Coney, 2019-00795 (La. 4/3/20), reh’g denied, 2019-00795 (La. 7/9/20), 298 So. 3d 168, where the Court found the expert’s testimony to be based upon insufficient facts or data. In Blair, the Supreme Court found the expert’s testimony should be excluded because he did not (1) inspect either vehicle involved in the collision; (2) speak with the damage appraisers; (3) know the plaintiff’s body position at the time of the accident; (4) inspect plaintiff’s vehicle for variance from the test-vehicle or (5) interview the plaintiff.  Thus, his testimony failed to meet the requirements of C.E. art. 702(A)(2). 

Citing the Blair decision, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit in Pollard concluded that the expert “relied on the same [improper] methodology in reaching his conclusions.” Therefore, the appellate court found the trial court erred in denying a motion in limine to exclude the expert’s testimony. Although the expert cited to peer-reviewed literature to support his conclusions, the evidence revealed that “most of the research and articles” he cited were either written by him or one of his employees.

Effective January 1, 2021, Louisiana amended La. R.S. 32.295.1, which now allows the admission of a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt as a factor to be considered in comparative fault. Defendants will seek to use biomechanical experts to prove that the failure to use a seatbelt substantially caused or contributed to the damages.

Biomechanical testimony may be allowed. However, as shown in Pollard, biomechanical opinions which lack sufficient inquiry to match the analysis to the real-world impact will be treated with skepticism. Taking Blair and Pollard together, the courts appear to resist expert biomechanical opinions which seek to definitively resolve medical causation which often involves subjective elements and credibility determinations reserved for the trier of fact.

It is certain that defendants will continue to advance the “low impact” argument because force-of-impact testimony is a relevant factor in determining causation or extent of injuries. See, e.g., Merrells v. State Farm Mutual Auto, Ins. Co., 33-404 (La. App. 2 Cir. 6/21/00), 764 So. 2d 1182. What is less than certain is the role of the biomechanical expert. Following the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Pollard, the Louisiana Supreme court denied the defendant’s writ application 4 to 3, with all three dissenters advising they would have granted the writ. Issues surrounding the use and scope of testimony from biomechanical experts appear far from settled.

Biomechanical Testimony: Reliability Sinks Expert Testimony

Recently, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected biomechanical testimony due to a lack of sufficient facts or data.  In Louisiana, as elsewhere, the trial court is to serve as the “gatekeeper” in deciding the admissibility of expert testimony.

In Blair v. Coney 20-00795 (La. 4/3/20),the plaintiff sought damages for injuries caused by a rear-end collision.  The defendant offered testimony from Dr. Charles E. Bain, partial owner of Biodynamics Research Corporation.  Dr. Bain testified that the plaintiff was not subjected to acceleration and forces sufficient to cause lasting injuries.  Dr. Bain’s testimony was based on previously conducted collision tests, photographs of the accident, and inspection of two vehicles of the same make and model.

The plaintiff moved to have Dr. Bain’s testimony excluded, claiming the testimony was irrelevant, unreliable, unduly prejudicial, and failed to satisfy the requirements of the “Daubert standard” as applied through Code of Evidence art. 702.  The district court granted the plaintiff’s motion and the defendant appealed.  After ordering reasons from the trial court, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s rejection of Dr. Bain. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed. 

According to the Blair Court, Dr. Bain’s testimony was properly excluded where he did not review prior medicals, inspect the vehicles involved, and made assumptions regarding the plaintiff’s body position which contradicted sworn testimony. As such, the testimony did not satisfy the reliability required for expert testimony.

The Blair Court declined to address whether Dr. Bain’s testimony satisfied any of the other requirements of Code of Evidence art. 702. The Court expressed no opinion as to Dr. Bain’s qualifications or methodology. 

Limitation of Liability under the LPLA: Can Internet Retailers be Manufacturers?

The Louisiana Products Liability Act (“LPLA”) contains the exclusive theories of recovery against a manufacturer for damages caused by its product. The term “manufacturer” within the LPLA includes “the seller of a product who exercises control over or influences a characteristic of the design, construction, or quality of the product that causes damage.” The rapid growth of e-commerce raises a unique question – how do we classify internet retailers?

Internet retailers generally act as a middleman for third party manufacturers and online consumers. In this respect, they are not technically “sellers” as defined by the LPLA because they typically do not have control over the design or construction of the products they sell. Nevertheless, the proper categorization of internet retailers may become important when someone is injured by a product, as was the case in State Farm Fire and Casualty Company v. Amazon.com, Inc., 2019 WL 5616708 (Miss. N.D. 10/31/19) — F.Supp.3d —.

In State Farm Fire and Casualty Company v. Amazon.com, Inc., two hoverboards purchased through Amazon caught fire inside a Mississippi home and the home was destroyed. In considering Amazon’s possible liability, the Mississippi Court asked whether Amazon was a “service provider” or a “marketplace.” In Mississippi, a finding that Amazon was a “service provider” would insulate it from the claim. However, if Amazon acted as a “marketplace,” it could be exposed by the common law to a negligent failure-to-warn claim. The Mississippi Court held that, because Amazon operated as a marketplace, the claim against it could go forward.

If similar facts arose in Louisiana, could Amazon or similar retailers be exposed under the LPLA? If an internet retailer established policies that forced a “true” manufacturer to negatively alter product quality, would the LPLA provide a remedy?  For example, if an internet retailer sets a price ceiling, this artificial figure, especially if unreasonably low, might pressure a manufacturer to lower product safety. Is setting a price range the exercise of enough control or influence over the “design, construction, or quality of a product” to render internet retailers subject to suit under the LPLA? That is a question likely to be answered in cases to come.

Minimal Force of an Impact Matters in Car Accident Litigation

For years, Louisiana plaintiffs attorneys have argued that the force of impact in an auto accident is not determinative of their clients’ injuries and should be afforded little, if any, weight. A recent decision out of the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal does damage to that argument. In Jones v. Bravata, Jr. and The City of Baton Rouge, 2018 CA 0837 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/9/19), the First Circuit upheld the trial court’s jury instruction on “force of impact” where photographs showed only minor damage and the defendant described the accident as a “bump.”

The accident occurred when a City employee rear-ended the plaintiffs’ vehicle. Liability was stipulated and the only question at trial was damages. Mrs. Jones alleged severe neck and back injuries. She began treatment with an orthopedist within a week of the accident and thereafter received five “relatively non-invasive surgical procedures” in lieu of a lumbar fusion surgery. The jury returned a verdict of $200,000, which included $150,000 in past medical expenses and $35,000 in future medical expenses, but awarded little for general damages. Mrs. Jones appealed the verdict, asserting that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on force of impact.

The “force of impact” jury instruction in dispute provided:

While the force of a collision may be considered in determining whether a person was injured by an accident and the extent of the injuries sustained, it should not be the only factor to consider in making such a determination. Even though the force of impact may be slight, it does not preclude an award of damages. However, in determining causation, you may consider the minimal nature of the accident.

In considering the plaintiff’s assignment of error, the First Circuit noted that Mrs. Jones was correct that no witness specifically testified that the accident was too minor to have caused her injuries. However, there was evidence in the record upon which the jury could have reached the conclusion that this was a minimal impact.

Common sense would appear to support a connection between the force of an impact and the injury one could be expected to suffer. The recent Jones decision allows defendants to promote this common sense argument. Where the claimed injuries are disproportionate to the forces involved, this argument can make the difference at trial.

John Grinton is a partner of the firm admitted in state, federal and appellate courts throughout Louisiana.  His practice focuses on commercial and construction litigation, representing insurance companies, architects, engineers, contractors and other businesses in all aspects of litigation.  His workers’ compensation practice includes representing clients in medical billing disputes, healthcare provider disputes, statutory/borrowing/special employer disputes, and court approved settlements. John has been involved in complex cases involving construction defect claims, breach of contract and negligence actions, insurance coverage issues, lender liability, securities litigation and personal injury matters. He has firsthand experience in jury trials and arbitration’s, as well as mediation, appellate briefing and oral argument.

The “Collateral Source Rule” & How it Can Cost (or Make) You Thousands – Part I

Imagine you are a defendant sued because you negligently injured someone in Louisiana.  In the accident, the plaintiff received extensive medical treatment. The health insurer paid $50,000 for medical costs even though the doctors billed $150,000 for the plaintiff’s care. The plaintiff was only out-of-pocket $500 for his health insurance deductible. What amount should you have to pay: $150,000, $50,000, or only $500?

The answer to this question is not so simple. You will certainly have to pay more than the plaintiff’s deductible, that much is clear. But whether you are required to pay the medical providers’ full rate of $150,000, the insurer’s discounted rate of $50,000, or some other amount for the medical services provided is a more complicated issue.

This blog is broken down in a two-part series. This installment will address the background of the collateral source rule and the public policy behind the rule.

What is the Collateral Source Rule?

The collateral source rule provides that a tortfeasor is generally not entitled to a credit for payments made to a plaintiff through “collateral sources,” i.e., sources not provided by the defendant. Under this rule, a tortfeasor’s exposure for damages should be the same regardless of whether or not the plaintiff purchased health insurance.

The collateral source rule permits the plaintiff to recover medical expenses in excess of the amounts actually paid by the plaintiff or their insurer. Critics therefore assert that the rule provides a “windfall” to the plaintiff that violates the goal of Louisiana tort law, namely to make the victim “whole.”  As applied, the rule can make the victim more than whole.

Origins of the Collateral Source Rule

To understand the collateral source rule, it helps to look at its origins. The rule in the United States at least dates back to the 1854 case The Propeller Monticello v. Mollison, 58 U.S. (17 How.) 152, 15 L.Ed. 68 (1854). In Propeller Monticello, two ships wrecked and one sank. The insurer of the ship that sank paid for the loss. The owner of the at fault ship asserted that the plaintiff had been fully compensated by the insurer’s payment and that it was therefore not obligated to pay for the damage. In rejecting this argument, the Propeller Monticello Court held the defendant was not a party to the insurance contract and could not reduce exposure by citing to the insurance available to the plaintiff.

Policies Behind the Collateral Source Rule

In Dep’t of Transp. & Dev. v. Kansas City S. Ry. Co., 846 So. 2d 734 (La. 5/20/03), the Louisiana Supreme Court detailed the public policy concerns that support the collateral source rule. According to the court, the policies in favor of the rule include:

i.  Fairness– a defendant should not gain an advantage from benefits provided to the plaintiff independent of any act of the defendant;

ii.  Deterrence– the rule provides a deterrence to negligent conduct; and,

iii.  Promotion of Insurance– victims could be dissuaded from purchasing insurance if that act could affect tort recovery.

So, how much do you owe: $50,000, $150,000, or some other amount? We’ll tell you in Part II of this blog.