Category: Louisiana Supreme Court

Louisiana Supreme Court Holds that Prescriptive Periods for Child Abuse Claims Cannot be Revived

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently found a statute enacted to revive child sex abuse claims for a limited period of three years was unconstitutional. The court addressed this issue in Douglas Bienvenu, et al. v. Defendant 1 and Defendant 2, and found the statute conflicted with the due process protections set forth in Article I, Section 2 of the Louisiana Constitution.

In 2021, the Louisiana Legislature amended La. R.S. 9:2800.9 to provide that a legal action against a person for sexual abuse of a minor, if barred by liberative prescription prior to the effective date of the amendment, is revived for a three-year period after the effective date of the amendment.  In 2022, La. R.S. 9:2800.9 was amended again to specifically state the Legislature’s intent to revive any cause of action related to sexual abuse of a minor that previously prescribed under any Louisiana prescriptive period.

In Bienvenu, the defendants filed an exception of prescription and argued the plaintiffs’ claims, which arose from alleged acts that occurred between 1971 and 1979, were subject to the general one-year liberative prescriptive period for delictual actions. After the 2021 amendment went into effect, the defendants filed a supplemental exception of prescription and argued (1) La. R.S. 9:2800.9, as amended, was not applicable, and (2) the amendment to the statute was unconstitutional. 

The trial court overruled the defendants’ exception, finding that the Legislature clearly expressed an intent to apply the statute retroactively and revive prescribed claims, narrowly tailoring the relief to child abuse cases. The appellate court denied defendants’ writ application, with one judge dissenting.

However, in a 4-3 decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that a defendant has a vested property right in accrued prescription. Therefore, it found a law that revives a prescribed cause of action violates due process. The Court further held that the Legislature lacked the authority to revive the prescribed claims “set forth under the facts alleged in this case,” finding the amendments to the statute unconstitutional.  As a result, the Court reversed the judgment of the trial court to the extent that it found the amendments to La. R.S. 9:2800.9 revived the claims upon which prescription had already accrued.

References:

Douglas Bienvenu, et al. v. Defendant 1 and Defendant 2, Case No. 2023-CC-01194 (La. 3/22/24) 

Louisiana Supreme Court Sets New Standard for Review of General Damage Awards 

In recent years, the dollar amount of general damage awards to personal injury plaintiffs has been on the rise. However, the Louisiana Supreme recently issued an opinion that may signal greater scrutiny  for heightened general damage awards going forward. In Pete, v. Boland Marine and Manufacturing Co., the state’s highest court changed the standard of review in quantum disputes to require courts of appeal to consider general damage awards in similar cases when determining whether a trial court has abused its discretion in awarding a specific general damage award.

In Pete, a 74-year old mesothelioma patient was awarded $9.8 million in general damages after it was found he was exposed to asbestos. The jury awarded $2 million for past and future physical pain and suffering, $2.3 million for past and future mental pain and suffering, $3 million for past and future disability, and $2.5 million for past and future loss of enjoyment of life. The appellate court held the defendant failed to demonstrate the general damage award “shocks the conscience,” and found the jury did not abuse its discretion.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the decision. In so holding, it also changed the standard by which appellate courts evaluate whether a trial court abused its discretion in awarding general damages. The Louisiana Supreme Court  now instructs appellate courts to compare general damage awards to those awarded in similar cases in their review of the reasonableness of the trial court’s award. Applying the new standard, the Louisiana Supreme Court found the trial court abused its discretion and reduced the Pete plaintiff’s general damage award from $9.8 million to $5 million.

Previously, Louisiana courts employed a two-step analysis in evaluating general damage awards. First, the court of appeal determined whether the trial court’s award constituted a clear abuse of discretion. Second, and only  if the court first determined that there was an abuse of discretion, the appellate court would consider prior damage awards in similar cases to determine what an appropriate award should have been. This test had proven problematic because there were no clear objective standards for determining whether the trial court’s award was an abuse of discretion.

The appellate court’s decision in Pete v. Boland Marine serves as an excellent example of the problems this test presented. While the majority found that the $9.8 million awarded to Pete did not “shock the conscience,” a dissenting judge believed the award did shock the conscience, because it far exceeded general damage awards in similar cases. The “shocking the conscience” test has been long criticized because of its lack of objectivity, as the result ultimately depended on the thoughts and feeling of the presiding judges. Critics argued this led to unpredictability within the law.

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision reforms the two part test in an attempt to resolve this issue. The new test mandates that appellate courts consider damage awards in similar cases in the initial inquiry, to objectively consider whether the trial court abused its discretion under the particular facts and circumstances of the case at hand. The second step of the test remains unchanged. If the court finds that the trial court abused its discretion, then the appellate court will look to recent cases to determine what is the highest or lowest award a reasonable trier of fact could have found and then reform the damage award accordingly.

This decision is a significant change in the law. It aims to increase predictability within the law and affords defendants objective standards by which to challenge damage awards. However, it remains to be seen how courts will implement this new test in practice. 

References:

Pete v. Boland Marine & Mfg. Co., LLC, 23-170 (La. 10/20/23), reh’g denied, 23-170 (La. 12/7/23), 374 So. 3d 135.

Louisiana Supreme Court Addresses Mental Anguish Awards When No Other Injury Is Claimed

As a general rule of Louisiana law, a plaintiff cannot recover general damages for mental disturbance or distress unless the defendant’s act also causes physical injury, illness, or some other physical consequence. However, in Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently reexamined the circumstances under which a limited exception to this general rule may apply.

The Spencer case involved an explosion and fire that occurred shortly after midnight at the Valero refinery in Meraux, Louisiana. The plaintiffs claimed Valero should be liable for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged they heard loud sounds, experienced anxiety, and had difficulty sleeping after the event. None of the plaintiffs received any medical treatment or experienced physical injury/symptoms. The defendant argued that the plaintiffs could not recover damages under these circumstances.

The court held that recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress is not precluded under Louisiana law. However, the court also cautioned that not every act that causes some harm also yields liability and compensatory damages. It held that Louisiana courts must also consider the goal set forth under Louisiana law to prevent “spurious” or false claims when examining these types of actions.

In review of the plaintiffs’ claims, the court cited Moresi v. State Through Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries, to show that the plaintiffs were required to establish “the especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from the special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.” The Spencer court held evidence of generalized fear or evidence of mere inconvenience is not enough to show that a plaintiff’s distress is “serious.” The court added that this rule must be “stringently applied,” because these types of cases, though fact intensive, are inherently speculative in nature.

In review of the facts presented in Spencer, the court found that Valero owed a duty to the plaintiffs and breached the “duty it owed, which was a cause-in-fact of plaintiffs’ generalized fear and anxiety.” However, the plaintiffs failed to produce evidence to show that their complaints, which included anxiety and difficulty sleeping, were sufficiently “serious” to support an award for negligent infliction of emotional distress, and their claims were dismissed. Although the result in Spencer may be limited to its facts, the Court’s decision appears to align with the general rule that a plaintiff usually cannot recover general damages for emotional distress in Louisiana absent an accompanying injury.

References:

Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC, 2022-00469 (La. 1/27/23), 356 So. 3d 936.

Moresi v. State Through Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries, 567 So.2d 1801 (La 1990).

Louisiana Supreme Court Rules on Admissibility of Expert Opinion on “Ultimate Issues”

La Code Evid. Art. 704 addresses the use of expert testimony in Louisiana Courts and provides, “Testimony in the form of an opinion or inference otherwise admissible is not to be excluded solely because it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact.” Though the text of this article is simple, Louisiana trial courts often face questions about when an expert’s opinion crosses a line and invades the jury’s fact-finding function. These questions often arise in the context of Daubert hearings under La. Code Civ. P. art. 1425.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently addressed this issue in Hulin v. Snow, where the Court was asked to review the extent to which an expert in a civil case could offer testimony that addressed the ultimate issues of law and fact in the case. The ultimate issue in the Hulin case, which involved parental care, was the alleged negligence of the defendants. The Court examined multiple tendered opinions of the plaintiffs’ expert, including expert testimony about the defendants’ negligence and credibility.

In a Per Curiam opinion, the Court ruled that it was improper for the expert to testify on the ultimate issues of whether the defendants were negligent or credible. It held that “(a)lthough experts may aid the trial court in the determinations of ultimate facts, the final conclusions drawn from those facts belong exclusively to the trier of fact.” The testimony of plaintiffs’ expert stated conclusions about these ultimate issues. Therefore, it was inadmissible.

However, the Court did allow the expert, a board-certified pediatrician, to opine on the parental care of the defendants. “Even though this testimony may embrace some of the ultimate issues to be decided by the trier of fact, it is permissible.” It appears the Court found that this testimony did not state conclusions about ultimate issues, as the Court held that the trier of fact could accept or reject the expert’s opinions on parental care as they relate to ultimate facts.

Reference:

Hulin v. Snow, 2023-00530 (La. 6/26/23), — So.3d —, 2023 WL 4199310.

Court Addresses the Reach of the Louisiana Health Emergency Powers Act’s Immunity Provision for Claims Against Health Care Providers

The Louisiana Health Emergency Powers Act (LHEPA), La. R.S. 29:760 et seq, was enacted in 2003 to allow the government to use extraordinary powers in order to respond to potential or actual public health emergencies. Historically, claims against medical providers have been governed by a negligence standard, which requires a plaintiff to prove the provider failed to act with reasonable care. However, La. R.S. 29:771(2)(c), which was enacted as part of the LHEPA, provides what has been described as a limited or quasi-immunity for health care providers:

During a state of public health emergency, any health care providers shall not be civilly liable for causing the death of, or injury to, any person or damage to any property except in the event of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

This provision imposes a heightened standard of gross negligence or willful misconduct for claims against health care providers and their employees. “Gross negligence” has been defined as “the entire absence of care and the utter disregard of the dictates of prudence, amounting to complete neglect of the rights of others.”* Therefore, absent a showing of gross negligence or willful misconduct, the provision provides immunity from civil liability for all claims against all health care providers.

The reach and application of this heightened standard of gross negligence under the LHEPA has been the subject of recent rulings from Louisiana courts. In Lejeune v. Steck, which was decided before COVID-19 in connection with a public health emergency declared following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the LHEPA’s heightened standard applied to all medical providers in the state while the state was in a public health emergency.^

In Lejeune, a doctor left a sponge in a patient during a surgery. The plaintiff argued that a general negligence standard should apply because the surgery occurred outside the Hurricane Katrina emergency area. However, the Court found that the plaintiff must prove gross negligence or willful misconduct because the LHEPA “does not provide for a limited set of health care providers, nor does it limit its application to only those medical personnel rendering emergency assistance voluntarily due to the emergency in the area.” Thus, the Court ruled the LHEPA was broad reaching and covered all health care providers in all areas of Louisiana during the public health emergency.

More recently, Governor Edwards invoked the LHEPA on March 11, 2020 in response to COVID-19. In line with the all-inclusive application seen in Lejeune, the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the LHEPA applied to all claims against health care providers that arose during the public health emergency declared for COVID-19.

In Lathon v. Leslie Lakes Ret. Ctr., the Second Circuit applied the LHEPA to a premises liability claim.^^ The plaintiff slipped and fell in a puddle at Leslie Lakes Retirement Center. The accident occurred during the declared public health emergency. The retirement center filed a motion for summary judgment and argued that because it qualified as a health care provider, the gross negligence standard set forth in the LHEPA should apply to the plaintiff’s claim.

The court agreed and found that the statute dictated that immunity applied in favor of any healthcare provider for any personal injury or property damage claim as long as it arose during a public health emergency. In so holding, the Court stated that the purpose of the LHEPA was to alleviate the liability burden on healthcare providers during public health emergencies. Therefore, the Court found its ruling aligned with the purpose of the act. The Lathon decision is significant because it applied the LHEPA’s statutory immunity to personal injury claims against healthcare providers outside of a medical malpractice setting.

At least one justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court voiced a desire to address the constitutionality of this statutory immunity provision. However, the Court ultimately declined to review the Second Circuit’s ruling. Therefore, under Lathon, it appears the statutory immunity granted under the LHEPA applies to any claim brought against any healthcare provider for acts that occur during a public health emergency. While it remains to be seen how courts will address this issue in the future, these decisions show the reach and application of the LHEPA continue to evolve.

References:
*Ambrose v. New Orleans Police Dep’t Ambulance Serv., 93-3099 (La. 7/5/94), 639 So. 2d 216.

^Lejeune v. Steck, 13-1017 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/21/14), 138 So. 3d 1280, writ denied sub nom. Daigle v. Steck, 2014-1408 (La. 10/3/14), 149 So. 3d 800.

^^Lathon v. Leslie Lakes Ret. Ctr., 54,479 (La.App. 2 Cir. 9/21/22); 348 So.3d 888, writ denied, 2022-01566 (La. 12/20/22); 352 So.3d 80.

Louisiana Supreme Court Confirms that Statutory Deadline to Oppose Summary Judgment Is Mandatory

A motion for summary judgment is a procedural device a party can use to avoid a full-scale trial when there is no genuine issue of material fact. La. C.C.P. art. 966 is the statute that governs motions for summary judgment in Louisiana. The statute was amended in 2015 to establish some new procedural rules for filing summary judgment motions. Before the statue was amended, the deadline for opposing a motion for summary judgment was set in the District Court Rules, and courts frequently allowed oppositions to motions for summary judgment to be filed after the statutory delay.

In 2015, the Legislature amended the statute to state that “absent the consent of the parties and the court, an opposition shall be filed” within the new fifteen-day deadline established by the article. In Auricchio v. Harriston, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the amendments to the statute removed the discretionary language that previously allowed a court to allow a party additional time to oppose a motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, the Court ruled the amendments to art. 966 made the opposition deadline mandatory, and late-filed oppositions should not be considered in connection with a ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently revisited this issue in Mahe v. LCMC Health Holdings LLC. The Court considered whether a trial court may grant a continuance of a hearing on a motion for summary judgment when a party fails to file its opposition within the fifteen-day deadline set in La. C.C.P. art. 966(B)(2).

In Mahe, a party requested a continuance of the hearing after the fifteen-day deadline passed. While subsection 966(C)(2) provides that a continuance of the hearing is permitted “for good cause shown,” the Court held that the requested continuance could not serve to circumvent the mandatory deadline for filing an opposition, as described in the Auricchio case. Accordingly, the order granting the continuance was reversed, and the trial court was instructed to rule on the motion for summary judgment without consideration of the untimely filed opposition. In so holding, the Court reinforced the mandatory deadlines set in La. C.C.P. art. 966 and provided additional guidance on the procedural rules for filing and opposing motions for summary judgment.

Louisiana Supreme Court Finds Business Interruption Coverage Does Not Apply to Losses Attributable to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the global economy. Louisiana was not spared, and many businesses had to close as sales to their customers slowed or stopped altogether. Not surprisingly, the question arose regarding whether business interruption insurance would provide coverage to businesses in this situation. The Louisiana Supreme Court recently was asked this question in Cajun Conti, LLC v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London and found that the policy at issue did not provide such coverage.

The mayor of New Orleans issued a proclamation on March 16, 2020, that prohibited most public and private gatherings. This applied to restaurants, whose business initially was limited to takeout and delivery services. Before the pandemic, Oceana Grill, a restaurant located in the French Quarter, could serve up to 500 customers at one time. However, it had to limit its business to takeout and delivery services when the mayor’s proclamation was announced. Because of social distancing guidelines, it remained at 60% or less capacity throughout the pandemic.

Oceana maintained a commercial insurance policy with loss of business income coverage and filed suit to request a declaratory judgment that the “policy provides business income coverage from the contamination of the insured premises by COVID-19.” Oceana’s insurer argued that there was no coverage under the policy because COVID-19 did not cause “direct physical loss of or damage to property” under the policy’s terms.

The trial court denied Oceana’s request for declaratory relief at trial. The appellate court reversed and found the policy’s terms ambiguous because it held “direct physical loss” could mean loss of use of the property. Because the pandemic prevented the full use of the property due to capacity limitations, the appellate court found coverage was triggered.

The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the appellate court’s decision, finding its focus on the use of the property to be misguided. The Court found that suspension of operations “caused by direct physical loss of or damage to property,” as defined by the policy, required “the insured’s property to sustain a physical, meaning tangible or corporeal, loss or damage.” The Court noted that the restaurant’s physical structure was not lost or damaged because of the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions did not cause damage or loss that was physical in nature. Therefore, the policy did not provide coverage for loss of business income.

Whether a policy affords coverage depends on the terms and conditions of each policy and the facts of each case. However, in light of this decision, businesses with insurance policies that include provisions with language like that at issue in Cajun Conti should not anticipate coverage for loss of business income allegedly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Case References:

Cajun Conti LLC v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, 2022-01349 (La. 3/17/23), 2023 WL 2549132.

Class Action Basics: What Are They and When Are They Certified?

Sometimes, a number of people or parties will file claims, in which each party alleges the same or similar injuries that were caused by the same or similar conduct. In these circumstances, federal and Louisiana law recognize class actions as procedural devices that can be used to aggregate the parties’ claims into a single action.

The purpose and intent of class action procedure is to adjudicate and obtain res judicata effect on all common issues applicable to the representatives who bring the action. However, this res judicata effect also applies to all others who are “similarly situated,” provided they are given adequate notice of the pending class action and do not timely exercise the option to exclude themselves from the class. Class actions are commonly filed in matters that involve common facts and damages such as plant explosions, claims based upon allegedly defective products, or claims involving employment practices or civil rights violations.

Before a court can hold a trial on the merits of a class action, the court must determine whether all of the procedural requirements are met for certification of the class. In making this determination, the court rules on whether the matter may proceed as a class action or whether the named parties must bring individual claims. In Louisiana, the threshold requirements for class certification are found in La. C.C.P. art. 591(A), which provides:

A.      One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all, only if:

(1) The class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable.

(2) There are questions of law or fact common to the class.

(3) The claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class.

(4) The representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

(5) The class is or may be defined objectively in terms of ascertainable criteria, such that the court may determine the constituency of the class for purposes of the conclusiveness of any judgment that may be rendered in the case.

Every one of these requirements must be met for an action to be maintained as a class action. Stated differently, the class cannot be certified if even one of these threshold requirements is not met. A party seeking class certification must also establish one of the additional requirements outlined in La. C.C.P. art. 591(B).

In Doe v. Southern Gyms, LLC, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that a court must conduct a “rigorous analysis” of the class certification requirements, to ensure that every one of them are satisfied before a case is certified as a class action. Moreover, it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove that every requirement of La. C.C.P. art. 591 is satisfied. While only the procedural requirements for class certifications are relevant to determine if a matter should be certified, the “rigorous analysis” required of the court oftentimes requires analysis of the overlapping merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.

Whether a matter should be certified as a class action is often a contested issue involving high stakes. If it is certified, the matter proceeds as a class action, where the claims are asserted on behalf of the entire class and can result in substantial damage awards. If the matter is not certified, the claim representatives must pursue their claims individually, which leads to significantly less exposure for defendants named in the action.

Case References:

Doe v. Southern Gyms, LLC, 2012-1566 (La. 3/19/13), 112 So.3d 822, 829.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, — U.S. —, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2550, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011).

Court Finds Legal Malpractice Claim Perempted Because the Client Knew It Received “Bad Advice” More than One Year Before Suit Was Filed

Legal malpractice claims in Louisiana are governed by a peremption period that cannot be interrupted or suspended. La. R.S. 9:5605(A) provides that a legal malpractice claim must be brought one year from the date of the alleged malpractice, or within one year from the date the alleged malpractice should have been discovered. However, even when a claim is filed within one year of discovery, it must be filed within three years of the date of the alleged malpractice. If a party fails to assert a legal malpractice claim before the peremption period expires, the right to bring the claim is lost.

The Louisiana Supreme Court holds that “peremption commences to run in a legal malpractice case when a claimant knew or should have known of the existence of facts that would have enabled him to state a cause of action for legal malpractice.” In Crosby v. Waits, Emmett, Popp & Teich, LLC, the court recently examined the types of circumstances that should inform a plaintiff that an act of alleged malpractice occurred, which would trigger the peremptive period in which the plaintiff’s claim must be filed.

The plaintiff in Crosby owned 75% of a company and was in the process of buying out the minority stakeholder. The company was involved in litigation at the time. Initially, the minority stakeholder maintained all of the recovery and risk related to the suit. In April 2016, an attorney advised the plaintiff to accept an offer to split the recovery and risk in the suit 50/50 as part of the sale. The plaintiff then accepted the 50/50 offer. The litigation concluded after the sale, in February 2018, and resulted in an adverse judgment for which the plaintiff was responsible pursuant to the 50/50 agreement.

The plaintiff filed suit on February 12, 2019, within one year of the verdict in the underlying litigation, and claimed that its attorney committed malpractice when he advised that plaintiff accept the offer to split the recovery and risk in the suit. Specifically, it was alleged the attorney failed to examine the nature of the litigation or discover that the seller’s employees were aware the suit bore serious risk. The plaintiff’s representative testified that he did not keep track of the litigation and therefore could not have known the attorney engaged in the alleged malpractice until the jury rendered its verdict in the underlying suit.

However, the minority stakeholder testified that he knew the 50/50 offer was a bad deal for the plaintiff. Another employee testified he thought the risk of loss in the underlying suit was apparent to everyone involved. The court agreed. Based upon the evidence presented, “it should have been obvious to all concerned that the 50/50 option was favorable” to the minority stakeholder, who was adverse to the plaintiff’s interest.

The court held that the plaintiff should have known its attorney may have committed an act of malpractice when he advised it to accept the 50/50 split before the underlying litigation concluded. Accordingly, suit was not filed within one year of when the plaintiff should have known the alleged act of malpractice occurred. The plaintiff’s claims that it lacked such knowledge could not stand up to conflicting evidence. Thus, the claim was peremepted, and the plaintiff’s suit was dismissed.

Case References:

Crosby v. Waits, Emmett, Popp & Teich, LLC, 2022-0395 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/21/22), 352 So. 3d 145.

Jenkins v. Starns, 2011-1170, p. 15 (La. 1/24/12), 85 So.3d 612, 621.

Legislature Responds to Louisiana Supreme Court Decision and Sets New Public Policy Regarding Insurance Coverage for Permissive Use of Non-Owned Vehicles

Imagine you are visiting family during the holidays. As a favor, you take a family member’s vehicle to the gas station for a fill-up. While in transit, you get into an accident where you are at fault. Does your insurance policy provide coverage for the accident?

According to La. R.S. 22:1296.1, a new statute that went into effect on August 1, 2022, the answer to this question is “yes,” your insurance may afford coverage under these facts.

La. R.S. 22:1296.1 now requires insurance policies issued in Louisiana to provide coverage when the driver insured under the policy operates a non-owned vehicle with the express or implied permission of the vehicle’s owner. The statue was enacted to declare a new public policy regarding this issue and was passed in response to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Landry v. Progressive Security Insurance Company, 2021-00621 (La. 1/28/22), reh’g denied, 2021-00621 (La. 3/25/22); 338 So.3d 1162.

The Landry case involved a motor vehicle accident that occurred as the defendant-driver, as a favor to the vehicle’s owner, drove the vehicle to a tire shop to repair a tire. The plaintiffs brought an action against the defendant-driver, the driver’s insurer, and the insurer of the vehicle that he drove at the time of the collision.

The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a provision in the driver’s policy that stated coverage under such circumstances was only available when the driver’s own vehicle was out of service. Because the driver’s vehicle was not out of service, no coverage was found under the driver’s policy. In so holding, the Landry court found that public policy did not  require automobile insurance liability coverage for a driver’s negligent operation of a non-owned vehicle.

The Louisiana legislature enacted La. R.S. 22:1296.1 in response to the Landry decision. The statute provides that an insurer writing automobile liability, uninsured, underinsured, or medical payments coverage shall not exclude the benefits of such coverage under its policy to an insured operating a non-owned vehicle if all of the following requirements are satisfied:

  • The coverage is in full force and effect.
  • The insured is operating a vehicle owned by another with the express or implied permission of the vehicle’s owner.
  • The non-owned vehicle that is being operated by the insured is not provided, furnished, or available to the insured on a regular basis.

The statute also provides this coverage is secondary to the vehicle owner’s insurance policy. Furthermore, if the coverage provided under the statute is included within the coverage provided pursuant to La. R.S. 22:1296, which addresses coverage for temporary, substitute, and rental vehicles, the provisions of La. R.S. 22:1296 determine which coverage is primary. (For additional information regarding La. R.S. 22:1296 click here.) [Sophia, please include link to blog from 5/25/22].

Let’s return to real life scenarios like those we addressed above. Perhaps you are blocked in at a party, so a friend tosses you the keys to move their car, or, like the situation in Landry, maybe you are trying to do a good deed by driving your parents’ car to a gas station for a fill-up when an accident occurs. While it remains to be seen how courts will interpret this statute in these circumstances, under the new legislation, these actions may now implicate coverage under your insurance policy.

Case Reference: Landry v. Progressive Security Insurance Company, 2021-00621 (La. 1/28/22), reh’g denied, 2021-00621 (La. 3/25/22); 338 So.3d 1162.

Louisiana Supreme Court Uses Reason to Decide Case Involving Tragic Facts

Sometimes in law, the facts of a case may threaten to eclipse the legal issue. However, Louisiana law instructs the fact finder to see through the facts, and their sometimes tragic nature, and apply the law as written. As Aristotle once wisely said, “The Law is reason free from passion.”

In Kazan, et. al. v. Red Lion Hotels Corporation, et. al., 2021-CC-01820 (La. 6/29/22), the Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled on a case with tragic facts, and its ruling provides an example of Aristotle’s description of law in action. In Kazan, a female patron was in the parking lot of a motel when a male patron approached her and used Kazan’s vehicle to abduct her from the premises. The car was later found submerged in a lake, and Kazan’s body was recovered from the water. The family filed a tort suit against several parties, including the motel’s owner and its insurer, the Great Lakes Insurance Company SE.

Great Lakes filed a motion for summary judgment and asked to be dismissed on grounds that coverage for the event was excluded from its policy. Specifically, the insurer argued that bodily injury caused by an “assault,” “battery,” or “physical altercation” was excluded under the policy’s terms. Great Lakes further argued that the kidnapping and ultimate death of the patron was excluded under the policy as bodily injury caused by an assault, battery, or physical altercation. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed and reversed the decision of the trial and appellate courts.

Under Louisiana law, “[a]n insurance policy is a contract between the parties and should be construed using the general rules for the interpretation of contracts.” Id. at p. 3. “When the words of an insurance policy are clear and explicit and do not lead to absurd consequences, courts must enforce the language as written.”  Id. at p. 3. “Courts lack authority to alter the terms of an insurance policy under the guise of interpretation and should not create an ambiguity where none exists.”  Id. at p. 3.

With these basic rules in mind, the Court carefully reviewed the wording of the exclusion in the Great Lakes policy which stated as follows: “This insurance does not apply to ‘bodily injury,’ ‘property damage,’ or ‘personal advertising injury’ arising out of an ‘assault,’ ‘battery,’ or ‘physical altercation.’” “Physical altercation” was defined in the policy as “a dispute between individual [sic] in which one or more persons sustain bodily injury arising out of the dispute.” Citing Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the Court defined the term “dispute” as  “verbal controversy” or “quarrel.”

Based upon the evidence in the case, the Court found the female patron was involved in a “dispute” with her male attacker, and ultimately sustained bodily injury as a result of the dispute. Therefore, the patron was injured in a physical altercation, as defined under the specific terms of the Policy, and coverage for the event was excluded under the policy’s terms.

The Court noted as follows: “The facts of this case are undoubtedly tragic. Nonetheless, absent a conflict with statutory provisions or public policy, insurers are entitled to limit their liability by imposing reasonable conditions upon the policy obligations they contractually assume. That is what Great Lakes did in the insurance policy at issue here.” Despite the tragic facts presented in the case, in so holding, it appears the court agreed with Aristotle’s belief that the Law is Reason Free from Passion.

Louisiana Supreme Court Now Allows Direct Negligence Claims Against Employer

In a previous blog, we outlined developing law in the Louisiana appeals courts, and federal district courts in Louisiana on the issue of whether a claimant may maintain a separate cause of action against an employer for independent negligence when it is stipulated that the employee was in the course and scope of employment.1 Most courts held a claimant could not maintain a separate action against the employer under these circumstances, reasoning that the employee’s fault would impute to the employer, and therefore, additional inquiry was not appropriate. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently addressed the issue and stated:

“(A) plaintiff may pursue both a negligence cause of action against an employee for which the employer is vicariously liable and a direct claim against the employer for its own negligence in hiring, supervision, training, and retention as well as a negligent entrustment claim, when the employer stipulates that the employee was in the course and scope of employment at the time of the injury.” (Emphasis added) See Martin v. Thomas et al., 21-1490 (La. 12/21/21), 328 So. 3d 1164.

This holding notably overturned the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruling in Elee v. White, – – So.3d – – (La. App. 1 Cir 7/24/20), 2020 WL 4251974 and other Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decisions. The Supreme Court in Martin reasoned that “the initial assessment of fault required by the law is not bypassed due to the employer-employee relationship” and “shielding a potential tortfeasor from liability is not compatible with a comparative negligence regime.” The Court further stated that the possibility that both the employee and employer may be at fault is not “subsumed” by the employer’s admission on course and scope. In fact, if the fault of the employee is shown, then the issue of whether there is also fault on the part of the employer remains and must be decided by the evidence on a case-by-case basis.

The consequences of this decision remain to be seen, but it is expected that claimants may also pursue employers separately on theories such as negligent hiring, supervision, and entrustment. The scope of such discovery will remain within the sound discretion of the trial judge.

By: John P. Wolff, III and Richard W. Wolff

1Louisiana Appeal Courts Prohibit Direct Negligence Claims Against Employer; US District Court Uses Rule to Limit Discovery – Keogh Cox