Author: Virginia J. "Jenny" McLin

When a Settlement Is Not a Settlement

Louisiana law favors the settlement of disputes. With a settlement, both sides agree to avoid costly litigation and obtain a certain, negotiated result. While neither side is completely happy with the result in a typical settlement, the case is at least closed and the financial and emotional drain of litigation is ended. But the recent decision in  The Marietta Trust and The Warren Trust v. J.R. Logging, Inc., Fair Hills Farm, LLC, Jerry Avants, Jr., Thomas Keaty, Jr. and XYZ Insurance Company, 2016 CA 1136 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/11/17) shows what can happen when one of the parties change their mind. This case is important because it calls into question whether an exchange of emails is sufficient to reach a final settlement.

The Marietta Trust case involved a dispute regarding the wrongful cutting of timber and the parties seemingly came to a resolution.  Via email, the case was negotiated and the terms were agreed upon. Formal settlement documents were drawn up and money was exchanged.  However, when the time came to execute the final documents, one set of defendants refused to sign the paperwork. This refusal to sign came after the attorney for these defendants directly stated in an email that his “clients have agreed to the settlement.” Id. at *4. In response to the refusal to sign, the other parties filed a Joint Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement which was denied by the Trial Court.

Settlement agreements are governed by the Louisiana Civil Code art. 3071 which provides that litigation can be resolved via settlement or compromise.  A settlement agreement can take two forms: 1) recitation in open court; or 2) a writing.  “The purpose of the writing requirement is to serve as proof of the agreement and the acquiescence therein.”  Marietta Trust, 2016 CA 11336, Id. at *3. The writing must be signed by the parties or their agents.  “Until the parties sign a written document or documents evincing their consent to the terms of the proposed agreement, a party is free to change his or her mind.”  Id. at *3. Prior courts have found that emails meet the “writing” requirements. See, Geer v. BP America Production Co., 2014-450 (La. App. 3 Cir. 11/5/14), 150 So. 3d 621; Dozier v. Rhodus, 2008-1813 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/5/09), 17 So. 3d 402.

The appellate court in Marietta Trust  refused to enforce the “settlement.”  The court found that the exchange of emails was insufficient to meet the “writing” requirement of Civil Code article 3071 because neither the emails nor any other evidence showed that the attorney possessed “the express consent necessary to accept the terms of the settlement.” Id. at *3.

When is a settlement not a settlement? Maybe when it came to you through your inbox. So, if an email from the attorney is not sufficient to perfect a settlement, what can we do? The answer offered by the 1st Circuit is to either: 1. Recite in open court; or 2. Obtain a writing that includes the client’s express consent given to the attorney to settle the case (presumably for the amount in the writing).

An Exercise in Inaction

I never worry about action, only inaction.”

– Winston Churchill

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision not to take up a case is sometimes just as important as a decision to grant Writs and issue a ruling. Recently, much attention has been given to the Court’s decision not to grant a Writ filed by Louisiana State University.

To Err is Human, To Rescind-Declined

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently addressed the impact of contractual “errors” in Cynthia Fry Perionnet and Elizabeth Fry Franklin v. Matador Resources Company, 2012-2292, 2012-2377, — So. 3d –.

The Perionnet case involved a dispute over the intent of a contract to extend a mineral lease. The property owners believed that the lease was extended as to only 168.95 acres of nonproducing land. The defendant/lessors argued that the contract contemplated that the lease would extend to the entire 1850.34 acres to include producing wells. Plaintiffs/property owners argued that their unilateral error regarding the terms of the contract was ground for rescission. The jury ruled in favor of the defendant/lessors. The Court of Appeal reversed. The Supreme Court granted writs.

Impact of Supreme Court’s Recent “Open and Obvious” Ruling not Obvious

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on the application of the “open and obvious” doctrine in slip and fall cases. The facts of Broussard v. State of Louisiana, 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13), presented problems for both sides. A UPS driver tripped and fell over an offset between the floor and an elevator. The elevator in a State building had problems for years. One problem was that the elevator would not align properly between floors causing an offset between the floor and the elevator. However, the UPS driver delivered products to this particular State building daily and was well aware of the problem. At the time of the incident, he noticed that the elevator was not properly aligned but nevertheless attempted to pull a dolly with approximately 300 pounds of computer paper over the offset. The inertia created caused the plaintiff to lose control. Plaintiff sued the State, the owner of the building, for injury to his back.

Sudden Shifts – Burden Shifting under Louisiana Law

Winning or losing in court often comes down to who possesses the burden of proof. Like a driver at a four-way stop, a litigant has to know when it is their turn.

Civil Procedure Article 966, the “Summary Judgment Article,” provides that the mover bears the burden of proof. The Louisiana Supreme Court recently addressed this burden in Dan Veuleman & Jody Veuleman v. Mustang Homes, LLC, 2013-C-190 (La. 4/5/13), – So. 3d – in the context of insurance coverage.