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9 Nov

Violating Safety Rules Can Lead to Severe Injury

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A form of the Golden Rule can be found in every major religion, and it is universally understood across disparate cultures and nationalities. The same cannot be said for Louisiana’s legal doctrine of the Golden Rule, which is frequently mischaracterized by the defendants we encounter in our personal injury practice. The issue typically arises when a defendant has violated a safety rule – such as a statute, a traffic regulation or an industry standard — and this violation led to an oilfield explosion, car crash, or other injury-causing incident. In these cases, we have seen defendants try to invoke the Golden Rule doctrine to ask the court to prohibit us from making arguments to the jury about the defendants’ rule violations.

 

For example, in one of our cases, the defendant’s employees violated safety rules when they incorrectly loaded a large piece of equipment onto the flatbed trailer of an eighteen-wheeler, which led to a horrific crash that amputated our client’s legs and caused him to suffer a traumatic brain injury. The defendant argued that the Golden Rule doctrine precluded us from talking to the jury about the safety rules that the defendant’s employees violated. But this is not a correct application of Louisiana’s Golden Rule jurisprudence.

 

In reality, Louisiana’s Golden Rule doctrine holds that a plaintiff cannot invoke the biblical Golden Rule and ask the jury to “substitute sympathy for judgment because the jury is asked to place itself in the position of a party and ‘do unto others'” the way the jury would themselves want to be treated. Louisiana courts have held that litigants cannot ask jurors to place themselves in the shoes of the litigant when determining the issue of damages (i.e., “award more damages to me because, if you were in my position, you’d want the jury to do this for you”).

 

However, this does not mean that jurors cannot place themselves in the position of the plaintiff when deciding who was at fault in causing a collision or other injury-causing incident. The Golden Rule cases explain that the jury is entitled to place itself in the shoes of the litigants when determining issues other than damages, such as the reasonableness of a party’s conduct, which is relevant to the issue of liability. See, e.g., Duerden v. PBR Offshore Marine Corp., 471 So. 2d 1111 (La. App. 3 Cir. 1985), writ denied, 476 So. 2d 355 (La. 1985); see also Tingle v. Am. Home Assur. Co., 2010 71 (La. App. 3 Cir. 6/2/10), 40 So. 3d 1169, 1175, writ denied, 2010 1580 (La. 10/29/10), 48 So. 3d 1095. To decide whether the plaintiff or defendant acted reasonably, the jurors are permitted to consider what they themselves would have done if faced with the same situation. Duerden, 471 So.2d at 1114.

 

Likewise, violations of rules and regulations are “intuitively relevant” as evidence regarding the reasonableness of a defendant’s conduct. Manchack v. Willamette Indus., Inc., 621 So. 2d 649, 653 (La. App. 2 Cir. 1993), writ denied, 629 So. 2d 1170 (La. 1993). While “regulations are not in and of themselves definitive of civil liability, they may be guidelines for the court in determining standards of negligence by which civil liability is determined.” Parker v. S. Louisiana Contractors, Inc., 370 So. 2d 1310, 1313 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1979), writ denied, 374 So. 2d 662 (La. 1979) (citing Smolinski v. Taulli, 276 So.2d 286, 289 (La. 1973)). “Although the violation of [safety] regulations does not constitute negligence per se, they may be relevant in the establishment of the standard of care owed by a particular defendant to a particular plaintiff.” Dupre v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 20 F.3d 154, 157 (5th Cir. 1994) (analyzing and applying Louisiana law).

 

Thankfully, multiple courts in Louisiana have rejected defendants’ attempts to misuse the Golden Rule, and have declined to improperly restrict plaintiffs’ evidence and arguments on the question of liability. See, e.g., Baxter v. Anderson, 277 F. Supp. 3d 860, 865 (M.D. La. 2017). However, we can expect defendants to continue to misuse the Golden Rule doctrine until Louisiana’s district courts receive more guidance from the appellate courts in the form of reported decisions on this issue.

 

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