Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (“UM coverage”) is included in all automobile liability policies by Louisiana law unless the insured “rejects [UM] coverage, selects lower limits, or selects economic only coverage.” What constitutes an adequate rejection of UM coverage has been the crux of countless lawsuits across the state. Recently, in Havard v. Jeanlouis, et al, 2021-C-00810 (La. 6/29/22), the Louisiana Supreme Court examined the validity of a corporate representative’s signature in the context of execution of a UM waiver form. Louisiana courts have found that without a valid signature, UM coverage generally may not be waived.
The Havard court recognized that a corporation cannot “sign” its own name, and that an authorized representative must act on its behalf. Under the facts of this case, an administrative assistant attempted to execute a UM waiver form at the corporate representative’s direction with a stamp of the representative’s signature. The plaintiff argued that the use of the stamp did not meet the requirements for proper execution of the UM waiver form at issue.
Considering these facts, the court noted that Louisiana law of mandate provides that “when the law prescribes a certain form for an act, a mandate authorizing the act must be in that form.” The court continued: “Accordingly, where one individual signs a UM form on behalf of another individual and authority is not conferred by law, our Civil Code requires this authority be in writing.”
While the corporate representative in Havard verbally instructed his administrative assistant to complete the waiver with his signature stamp, no written mandate existed between the representative and the assistant to confirm this authority. Absent the written mandate, the court disregarded the express intention of the corporate representative and held the form invalid.
The court recognized the impracticality of its holding. However, it also commented “Concerns over the practical impact within the insurance industry in scrutinizing stamped signed UM forms are unavailing. Inconvenience is not absurdity. The insurer has the authority, opportunity, and responsibility to assure the UM form is completed properly. … Practical considerations regarding increased due diligence requirements are matters of policy best directed to the legislature.”
Cases involving UM waiver forms are fact-sensitive. Havard involved unique facts where the company’s authorized agent did not sign the UM waiver form personally. While Havard may be limited to its facts, it reminds that proper execution of a UM waiver form is necessary for UM coverage to be properly waived.
Louisiana Supreme Court Provides Updated Guidance on Execution of UM Waiver Forms
Tim Berners-Lee, computer scientist and founder of the World Wide Web Consortium, famously stated, “We can’t blame the technology when we make mistakes.” One Louisiana appellate court disagrees.
In Worm v. The Berry Barn, LLC, 20-1086 (La. App. 1 Cir. 10/21/21), the Louisiana First Circuit utilized a broad interpretation of Louisiana’s fax-filing statute, La. R.S. 13:850. In Worm, the plaintiff was injured in an accident on October 7, 2018. Plaintiff’s counsel fax-filed the Petition to the Tangipahoa Parish Clerk of Court’s office on Friday, October 4, 2019. The next Monday, the Clerk sent a “Fax Filing Confirmation” to Plaintiff’s counsel. Plaintiff’s counsel filed the original Petition with the Clerk of Court on October 11, 2019.
Defendants filed an exception of prescription, arguing that the faxed Petition did not interrupt prescription because Plaintiff’s original Petition was not “identical” to the faxed Petition, as required by La. R.S. 13:850. Defendants correctly pointed out that portions of the first and second pages of the fax filed Petition were “cut off … thereby eliminating some of the substance of plaintiff’s allegations.” Plaintiff opposed the exception, arguing that any error in the receipt or printing of the fax filed petition was attributable to the Clerk of Court and/or its fax machine.
The trial court recognized that the difference between the fax filed Petition and the original Petition was “ultimately the result of, we think a machine error.” Nevertheless, the court sustained defendants’ exception and dismissed plaintiff’s claims as prescribed. Plaintiff appealed.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Louisiana’s prescription statutes are to be strictly construed against prescription and in favor of the obligation sought to be extinguished. The court held, “There is no dispute that the physical copies contained in the record show that the fax filed petition and the original petition are different. However, the differences are due to missing as opposed to substantively different or altered portions of the petition. … As reasoned by the trial court, the apparent error in receipt and printing of plaintiff’s fax filed petition by the Clerk of Court was attributable to ‘machine error …’” The First Circuit held that the fax filed Petition interrupted prescription and reversed the decision of the trial court.
While the explicit language of La. R.S. 13:850 requires that a fax filed pleading be “identical” to the original pleading, the First Circuit’s decision in Worm suggests that the statute has at least some flexibility. Although the plaintiff in Worm was able to “blame the technology,” the impact of the decision may ultimately be limited to its specific facts where the “machine error” was caused by the Clerk’s system.