Can a Witness to an Accident Seek Damages in Court?

airplane_airplane_cruising_897048-scaledHave you ever witnessed an accident? The experience can be overwhelming, leaving lasting, often overlooked emotional scars. Such consequences raise an essential question; can a witness to an accident seek damages in court? The subsequent lawsuit helps answer that question. The journey of the litigants through the intricate legal landscape reveals their unwavering determination to find solace for the emotional anguish they endured as witnesses to the tragic events.

The story begins on a fateful day when Briana Davis and her boyfriend, Reginald Hilliard, Jr., embarked on an aerial tour of the City of New Orleans. Unfortunately, the flight ended tragically as the plane, piloted by James Biondo, crashed into Lake Pontchartrain, resulting in the death of Reginald Hilliard, Jr. In the aftermath, Dorothy Jarvis, Tukeya Jarvis, and Thomas Hilliard (Jarvis and Hillard), relatives of the deceased, arrived at the crash scene and witnessed the recovery operations.

In their lawsuit, Jarvis and Hillard claimed that James Biondo’s negligence, specifically his failure to properly inspect, operate, pilot, navigate, and prevent the airplane crash, was the direct cause of the tragedy. Furthermore, they sought bystander damages under Louisiana C.C. art. 2315.6, asserting they suffered severe mental anguish and emotional distress due to witnessing the crash and its aftermath.

Louisiana C.C. art. 2315.6 establishes the criteria for recovering bystander damages. To succeed, a plaintiff must demonstrate the following elements: (1) witnessing the event causing injury or arriving at the scene soon after, (2) the direct victim suffering harm that would reasonably cause serious mental anguish to the plaintiff, (3) the emotional distress being both serious and reasonably foreseeable, and (4) the existence of the requisite familial relationship between the plaintiff and the direct victim. Additionally, the plaintiff must have contemporaneously been aware the event caused harm to the victim. 

Jarvis and Hillard’s lawsuit was met with an exception filing, in which the defendant argued that they had no cause of action. This means that the defendants argued their lawsuit was defective and, therefore, were not legally entitled to relief under the law. A hearing occurred, and the trial court agreed with the Defendant’s position. Unhappy with the ruling, Jarvis and Hillard appealed. 

The appellate court reviewed Jarvis and Hillard’s claims. They considered only the facts presented in their petition, finding that it did not adequately establish a cause of action for bystander damages. The court emphasized the lack of information about Jarvis and Hillard’s awareness of the deceased’s condition during and after the crash, which is vital for determining the foreseeability of severe emotional distress.

However, the court recognized that the deficiencies in the petition could be remedied through amendment. Louisiana C.C.P. art. 934, which allows for amendment when the grounds for an objection can be resolved, the court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case. This decision permitted Jarvis and Hillard to amend their petition for damages within sixty days.

The legal journey surrounding the tragic airplane crash took a hopeful turn as the Appellants were granted the opportunity to amend their petition for bystander damages. Though their initial attempt fell short, the court recognized the need for crucial factual details about their awareness of the crash’s aftermath. This decision opens a new chapter, illustrating the Appellants’ resilience and determination in their quest for justice and closure, and hope for other future Appellants who may want to amend their petition for bystander damages. With a chance to rewrite their story, they move forward, embodying the unwavering pursuit of accountability and solace in the face of immense loss.


Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Juliana Greco

Other Berniard Articles on Bystander Recovery: Understanding the Law: Bystander Recovery After Tragedy Strikes

Contact Information