Court Reinstates $6.3M Judgment Against State in La. Road Case

March 14, 2008

The state of Louisiana must pay $6.3 million plus interest to a wreck victim severely injured when ejected from the car of a suspected drunk driver speeding in Baton Rouge in 1994, a state appellate court has ruled.

The condition of Baton Rouge’s Greenwell Springs Road at the time of the accident is a key element in the case.

An East Baton Rouge Parish jury in December 2004 awarded $12.6 million to Joshua Forbes, who was ejected from the Geo Prizm driven by his uncle, Rodney Cockerham. After being ejected, Forbes, who was 11 at the time, fell to the roadway and was run over by a truck. His arm was severed and he suffered multiple other injuries that have required dozens of surgeries.

The jury decided Cockerham was 60 percent responsible for the accident and the state was 40 percent to blame because it did not address problems along Greenwell Springs Road, which is a state highway.

Because Cockerham was unable to pay his share of the damage award, the state was responsible for half or $6.3 million, according to state law in 1994.

State District Judge Timothy Kelley presided over the 2004 trial and in May 2005 amended the jury verdict to place all the blame for the wreck, in which one person was killed, on Cockerham.

But on March 7, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reinstated the original jury verdict.

“We find the jury verdict on the liability of DOTD was reasonably supported by evidence presented at trial,” the 1st Circuit said, referring to the state Department of Transportation and Development, in a lengthy, 84-page decision.

Chris Mason, who represents the state of Louisiana in this case, described the appellate court ruling as “unfortunate” and said he will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the decision.

“What the First Circuit is saying is the state owes a duty to protect people against drunk drivers who are speeding on rural highways,” Mason said.

The young man suffered some of the most severe injuries he’s seen, but the uncle, who was driving close to 100 mph, is to blame, Mason said. “Unfortunately for Joshua, it is not the state’s fault,” he said.

Forbes was being represented by attorney Gary Roth during the 2004 trial.

Roth maintained the roadway was substandard because the state did not perform required maintenance such as the removal of trees near it, the shoulder was too narrow and a steep drop off to the side of the roadway contributed to the crash.

Information from: The Advocate,

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