Jury verdict for injured driver debated
On October 3, 2012, John Rentrop was driving a 1998 GMC Blue Bird school bus traveling west on Louisiana Highway 182 near Patterson, Louisiana. Rentrop had just begun his route, and the bus was filled with children. It was Rentrop’s policy for children not to sit in the last four rows of the bus for safety reasons. As Rentrop’s bus came to a stop to let a child off, with the bus lights on and stop signs out, it was struck from behind by a 2007 Mack MR 668S garbage truck driven by Jermaine Harding. The collision was caused by Harding’s failure to yield to the traffic ahead of him. No children were injured. The garbage truck was owned and operated by Harding’s employer, Progressive Waste Solutions of Louisiana, Inc. d/b/a SWDI, L.L.C., and insured by Arch Insurance Company. Both the school bus and the garbage truck were declared total losses.
Rentrop was taken by ambulance to Teche Regional Medical Center. He complained of neck and back pain but was discharged the same day. On October 8, 2012, Rentrop saw Dr. Lianter Albert, who prescribed a pain reliever and a muscle relaxer. Rentrop attended 31 sessions of physical therapy and received steroid injections, but his pain still did not recede. Although physical therapy allowed Rentrop to be more active, his pain worsened. Dr. Albert referred Rentrop to Dr. David Weir, a neurologist, for nerve conduction studies. Dr. Weir examined Rentrop and determined that he likely needed surgery because physical therapy did not have lasting benefits. In May 2013, Dr. Weir referred Rentrop to an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. George Raymond Williams, to ascertain whether surgery was necessary. Dr. Williams examined Rentrop and determined that he had cervical degenerative disc disease, spondylosis, and a herniated disc. Dr. Williams recommended surgery because of Rentrop’s severe cervical pain. Rentrop had a cervical discectomy and fusion in July 2013. After surgery the pain in his neck began to improve and his daily headaches receded.
On July 18, 2013, Rentrop and his wife, Dawn Rentrop, filed a petition for damages against Arch Insurance, Progressive Waste Solutions, and Harding for the injuries he sustained in the accident. On August 30, 2013, St. Mary Parish School Board, Rentrop’s employer, intervened in the matter, seeking reimbursement for the workers compensation indemnity and medical benefits it paid to Rentrop. On April 4, 2014, the parties jointly stipulated that Harding’s negligence was the sole cause of the accident.
After a trial in September 2016 the jury awarded damages to John Rentrop in the total amount of $1,602,500 for physical pain and suffering; mental anguish; disability and disfigurement; inconvenience, loss of gratification of/or intellectual and/or physical enjoyment of life and loss of lifestyle; medical expenses, and loss of income. His wife, Dawn, was awarded $250,000 for loss of consortium.
On October 11, 2016, the court signed a judgment in accordance with the jury verdict. On October 24, 2016, the defendants filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) or alternatively a Motion for New Trial (MFNT). These motions were denied in a judgment signed on December 22, 2016. The defendants suspensively appealed.
On appeal, the defendants argued that the Rentrops’ counsel displayed improper behavior during closing argument, warranting a JNOV or in the alternative a MFNT. The defendants argued that the counsel’s misconduct produced a prejudicial effect and “went beyond the bounds of permissible and ethical advocacy.” The lawyer’s statement amounted to an announcement that this was his last trial because he would be retiring after a 43-year career. The defendants claimed the statement was overly dramatic and influenced the jury verdict.
The court of appeal disagreed, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendants JNOV, or in the alternative MFNT, and this assignment of error lacked merit.
The defendants also assigned as error the jury’s award of $250,000 to Dawn Rentrop for loss of consortium. The defendants said the award was excessive in light of the testimony and facts of the matter.
Dawn testified that she and her husband had always led an active life but after the accident remained at home because of her husband’s injuries. She quit her job to care for him, and he was unable to work after the accident so lost income from his bus driving job and from an automotive business he had owned.
The court found that the trial court’s award was supported by the evidence and that the defendants’ assignment of error lacked merit.
The defendants also assigned as error the jury’s awards to Rentrop for loss of income, general damages, and medical expenses. Finally they assigned as error the trial court’s denial of its challenge for cause of two prospective jurors who previously had been represented by the Rentrops’ counsel.
The court found no merit to the issue of the prospective jurors. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment rendered in accordance with the jury’s verdict, as well as its denial of the motion for JNOV or alternatively MFNT. The court amended the final judgment and reduced the jury’s award of past, present, and future medical expenses of $400,000 to $150,000. It upheld the other segments of the award that were challenged by the defendants.
Rentrop vs. Arch Insurance Company-Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit-December 29, 2017-2017 CA 0635.