Category: Louisiana

“Forensic Defendants” Dismissed from Wrongful Conviction Suit

On December 9, 1982, a victim was raped and stabbed multiple times in her Baton Rouge residence.  In those harrowing moments, the victim was face-to-face with her assailant and vowed that she would remember the characteristics of her assailant in the unlikely event she survived. A friend arrived at the residence and entered the second-floor room containing the assailant and the wounded victim.  Fortunately, at that moment, noise from a postal employee caused the assailant to flee the scene. The investigation began that same day.

Sometime later, Archie Williams became a suspect and was then criminally charged after the victim identified Mr. Williams as her attacker. The victim identified a prominent scar on the assailant which, in an unfortunate twist of fate, tended to match a scar on Mr. Williams.  Several of the governmental officers involved in the investigation and the April 1983 criminal trial of Mr. Williams were sued many years later in the case styled Archie Williams v. City of Baton Rouge, ET AL. Keogh Cox attorneys Drew Blanchfield, Collin LeBlanc, Cathy Giering, and Chelsea Payne represented a forensic scientist, a lab technician, and a print examiner in the suit (the “Forensic Defendants.”)  In his June 10, 2024 ruling, Judge Brian A. Jackson granted a Motion for Summary Judgment in favor of these defendants, dismissing the claims against them with prejudice. 

At the 1983 criminal trial, Forensic Defendants testified that they could not identify Mr. Williams as the attacker. Similarly, both the prosecutor and defense counsel advised the jury that the physical evidence did not implicate Mr. Williams. Nevertheless, Mr. Williams was convicted based upon the passionate but mistaken testimony of the victim.  Mr. Williams had not committed these crimes but remained incarcerated until his release decades later.

Mr. Williams consistently denied guilt. In 2008, he hoped DNA testing would help to prove his innocence.  However, the DNA evidence was of no assistance. In 1999, The FBI launched its National Fingerprint Database (“IAFIS.”)  Yet, a 2009 search generated no matches to fingerprints from the crime scene that had not already been identified. In 2014, Next Generation Identification (NGI) replaced IAFIS.  By 2016, NGI held approximately 72,000,000 criminal fingerprints and 50,000,000 civil fingerprints.  A 2019 search of this ever-expanding database matched fingerprint evidence taken from the 1983 crime scene to the prints of a convicted rapist who had died in prison years before. Mr. Williams was innocent and was soon released through a joint filing by the State of Louisiana and Mr. Williams. His lawsuit against multiple defendants followed.

In response, the Forensic Defendants filed a Motion that advanced the “qualified immunity” granted to governmental officials. In opposition to the Motion, the plaintiff possessed the burden: 1) to raise a fact dispute on whether his constitutional rights were violated by the defendants’ individual conduct; and 2) to show those rights were “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation. The Court found that the plaintiff did not meet this burden.  Although Plaintiff alleged that certain fingerprint evidence had been “suppressed” in violation of the “Brady Rule,” the Court cited the robust factual record showing that the jury was fully aware that no fingerprint evidence identified Mr. Williams and that unidentified prints were present at the crime scene.  The Court also rejected the claim that there was any fabricated exculpatory blood or serology evidence. 

The facts in Williams highlight the great technological improvements since the early 1980s which now aid the court system, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to protect against the conviction of an innocent suspect.  These facts also tell a sad human story of an individual who spent more than 30 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.  While it does not replace the lost years, Louisiana has created a fund which provides some financial resources to wrongfully convicted individuals to help them re-enter society. Williams was able to take advantage of this fund.

References:

Archie Williams v. City of Baton Rouge, ET AL, United States District Court, Middle District of Louisiana, No. 3:20-cv-00162.

Louisiana Supreme Court Vacates Prior Decision and Finds Prescriptive Periods for Child Abuse Claims Can Be Revived

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.

On March 22, 2024, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued its decision in Douglas Bienvenu, et al. v. Defendant 1 and Defendant 2, and found the statute was unconstitutional because it conflicted with due process protections set forth in the Louisiana Constitution. Specifically, the Court found that a defendant has a vested property right in accrued prescription and that revival of a prescribed cause of action violated due process.

However, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs’ request for rehearing, and on June 12, 2024, the Court vacated its prior ruling and found that the amendments to La. R.S. 9:2800.9 were constitutional.

On rehearing, the court agreed that a defendant has a vested property right in accrued prescription but found another step in constitutional analysis was required— examination of whether the legislature’s revival of prescribed causes of action for sexual abuse of minors “comports with substantive due process.” The Court noted, “The essence of substantive due process is protection from arbitrary and capricious action.”

In Bienvenu, the defendants’ right to plead prescription was an economic interest that did not implicate fundamental rights. The statute at issue was social welfare legislation, enacted to address societal costs of child sexual abuse. Therefore, the Court found the applicable due process test was whether the legislation was reasonable in relation to the goal to be attained and was adopted in the interest of the community as a whole. The statute needed only to have a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest to survive due process scrutiny.

The Court found the amendments to La. R.S. 9:2800.9 passed this test because (1) the provision assists in identifying hidden child predators so children will not be abused in the future; (2) shifts the costs of the abuse from the victims and society to those who actually caused it; and (3) educates the public about the prevalence and harm from child sexual abuse to prevent future abuse. These interests were found legitimate and compelling. Thus, the statute was constitutional and could be applied retroactively “to revive, for the period stated, all causes of action related to sexual abuse of a minor that previously prescribed under any Louisiana prescriptive period.”

References:

Bienvenu v. Defendant 1, 2023-01194 (La. 3/22/24), 382 So. 3d 38, reh’g granted, 2023-01194 (La. 5/10/24), and opinion vacated on reh’g, 2023-01194 (La. 6/12/24).

Bienvenu v. Defendant 1, 2023-01194 (La. 6/12/24).

The Louisiana Legislature Overhauls the “Direct Action” Statute

For decades, Louisiana law provided a claimant or injured person an uncommon opportunity (1) to directly name an insurer in a lawsuit, and (2) to make the jury aware of the presence of insurance. This was known nationally as the “Louisiana Direct Action Statute.” This statute, embodied in LSA—R.S. 22:1269, has long been a topic of debate.

The Louisiana Legislature recently amended the “direct action statute” in Act 275 and declared that the injured person “shall have no right of direct action against the insurer” unless at least one of the exceptions applies: the insured files for bankruptcy, the insured is insolvent, service cannot be made on the insured, a tort cause of action exists against a family member, uninsured motorist claims, the insured is deceased, or when the insurer issues a reservation of rights or coverage denial (but only for the purpose of establishing coverage). The Act further provides that the insurer shall not be included in the caption of the case. And, the existence of insurance is not to be disclosed unless the Louisiana Code of Evidence requires it. This new legislation is effective August 1, 2024.

But, the Act also provides for new provisions that allow for the joinder of an insurer after settlement or in connection with a final judgment. The Act further includes specific provisions enacted to provide notice to an insurer of an action and outlines the procedures and timelines for how insurers assert reservation of rights or a denial of coverage.

The revisions to LSA—R.S. 1269 represent a significant change in how lawsuits involving insurance companies will proceed.

Louisiana Appellate Court Examines How Accidents are Defined under Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Law

Generally, Louisiana Workers’ Compensation laws provide coverage for an employee who sustains personal injuries by an accident arising out of and in the course of his or her employment. La. R.S. 23:1021(1) defines “accident” as:

“An unexpected or unforeseen actual, identifiable, precipitous event happening suddenly or violently, with or without human fault, and directly producing at the time objective findings of an injury which is more than simply a gradual deterioration or progressive degeneration.”

In Rayborn, Sr. v. Continental Cement Company, LLC et al, the plaintiff-employee filed suit when the worker’s compensation carrier terminated benefits based on its assertion that the plaintiff’s left knee injury was not the result of an “accident” as defined in the statute. The evidence presented at trial established the following:

  • After returning home from work one day, the plaintiff began to feel soreness behind his left knee and believed he “may have pulled a muscle.”
  • The plaintiff sought medical attention at a local clinic 2 days later.
  • The plaintiff told clinic staff that his “leg was hurting,” and that he “was at work climbing up and jumping down off of barges all week.”
  • After returning from a pre-planned family trip one week later, the plaintiff told to his managers at work that he hurt his knee “some kind of way” and that he was “doing too much climbing up and jumping down from barges “and his knee “just started hurting.”
  • The chart from follow-up clinic visits stated, “Patient had [an] injury while at work when he jumped from a height and later that day felt a discomfort in the left lateral knee.”
  • Additional records noted the plaintiff “injured his knee on the job; however it was not readily apparent until [his] knee became stiff later that evening.”
  • The plaintiff later consulted with an orthopedic surgeon whose initial chart entry stated, “Over the course of the week, his knee began bothering him in the patellofemoral area and it started to become tight and swollen.”

At the conclusion of trial, the workers’ compensation court ruled that the plaintiff successfully proved that he sustained a work-related injury of his left knee on a particular date by climbing and jumping while performing his work duties. On appeal, the workers’ compensation carrier argued that plaintiff’s assertion that he was injured “some kind of way” over the course of a week was not sufficient to meet the requirement of a specific, identifiable accident in the course and scope of employment under La. R.S. 23:1021(1).

In affirming the decision of the OWC judge, the appellate court highlighted numerous opinions from the Louisiana Supreme Court and other courts of appeal wherein the statutory definition of “accident” was liberally construed to reject an interpretation that excluded “those workers who are worn down, rather than immediately crippled by, their work.” The opinion notes that it is well-settled in the case law that an “accident” exists when “heavy lifting or other strenuous efforts, although usual and customary, cause or contribute to a physical breakdown or accelerate its occurrence because of a pre-existing condition.”

The opinion added, “It is presumed the legislature is aware of how Louisiana courts have interpreted the statute; yet, it has taken no steps to overrule more than thirty years of Louisiana jurisprudence.” In so holding, it is unclear whether the court considered La. R.S. 23:1020.1(D), in which the Legislature specifically rejected the jurisprudential doctrine requiring a liberal interpretation of Workers Compensation statutes in favor of an employee. Despite this statement from the Legislature on the construction of Workers Compensation statutes, the Rayborn opinion suggests that courts may continue to base their decisions on the liberal interpretation of “accident” that has been developed and adopted by Louisiana courts when analyzing what types of injuries are covered under Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Law.

References:

Rayborn v. Cont’l Cement Co., LLC, 2023-0403 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1/10/24), 2024 WL 132802.

Wage Garnishment –Failure to Comply with Louisiana Procedures Can Result in Costly Penalties for Louisiana Employers

Although courts have described the outcome as “harsh,” a recent ruling shows that a judgment creditor can recover the full amount of an employee’s unpaid debt from an employer if that employer fails to comply with specific garnishment procedures.

A party that prevails in a lawsuit and is awarded damages is known as a judgment creditor. In order to collect on the judgment, Louisiana law allows a judgment creditor to garnish the wages of the judgment debtor, the party cast in judgment. Once a judgment against an employee is obtained, the judgement creditor may issue garnishment interrogatories to the employer requesting information related to the employee’s job, rate of compensation, manner of payment, and whether there are other judgments or garnishments affecting the employee’s compensation.

It is imperative that the employer file sworn answers to all garnishment interrogatories within 30 days from the date of service.^ Louisiana courts treat unsworn answers to interrogatories as a failure to answer,* and an employer’s failure to timely answer garnishment interrogatories can result in costly penalties. In fact, a Louisiana employer can be held liable for the full amount of the employee’s judgment if procedural requirements are not followed.

La. C.C.P. art. 2413(A) states that if the employer fails to answer the garnishment interrogatories within 30 days from the date of service, then the judgment creditor may proceed against the employer for the amount of the unpaid judgment, with interest and costs. La. C.C.P. art. 2413(B) provides that the employer must pay the entire amount of the judgment unless it proves the actual amount it owed to the employee at the trial on the contradictory motion. Regardless of the decision on the contradictory motion, La C.C.P. art. 2413(C) requires the employer to pay the costs and reasonable attorney’s fees of the judgment creditor.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals recently examined these procedures in Tower Credit, Inc. v. Williams.^^ The judgment creditor in the Tower Credit case issued garnishment interrogatories to the judgment debtor’s employer. However, the employer failed to timely respond to garnishment interrogatories. When the judgment creditor filed a Motion for Judgment Pro Confesso against the employer to require it to appear and present evidence regarding the amount of wages it should have withheld after receiving the garnishment interrogatories, the employer failed to appear for the hearing.

Given the employer’s failure to timely respond to the interrogatories and its failure to appear for the hearing, the First Circuit found that the creditor was entitled to a judgment pro confesso against the employer for the entire amount of the employee’s debt. Citing the unique facts of the case, which included evidence that the judgment debtor/employee no longer worked for the employer cast in judgment, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently granted vacated part of the judgment pro confesso and remanded the matter for rehearing.**

However, this case shows that Louisiana courts will enforce La. C.C.P. art. 2413 and cast an employer in judgment for its employee’s debt, even though courts have described the statute’s penalties as “harsh.” Tower Credit shows that employers should respond to garnishment interrogatories within the timeframe provided by law. In the event the deadline is passed, La. C.C.P. art. 2413(B) requires the employer to appear for the judgment pro confesso hearing if it intends to argue it should not be indebted for the judgment. Failure to do both could result in the employer being held liable for the full amount of its employee’s unpaid debt.

References:

^ See La. C.C.P. art. 2412(D).

*See All Star Floor Covering, Inc. v. Stitt, 804 So. 2d 705 (La. Ct. App. 1st Cir. 2001).

^^Tower Credit, Inc. v. Williams, 2022-0106 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/16/22), 352 So. 3d 1029, writ granted, judgment vacated in part, 2022-01556 (La. 2/7/23), 354 So. 3d 659.

**Tower Credit, Inc. v. Williams, 2022-01556 (La. 2/7/23), 354 So. 3d 659.

Judicial Interest Rate for Louisiana Hits a 17-Year High

The Judicial Interest Rate for 2024 in the State of Louisiana has been set at 8.75%. This is the highest the rate has been since 2007.

Generally, judicial interest is interest payable on a judgment that has not been satisfied. Depending on the underlying basis for the judgment, the date that the interest begins to accrue can be before the judgment is rendered. For example, La. R.S. 13:4203 provides, “Legal interest shall attach from date of judicial demand, on all judgments, sounding in damages, ‘ex delicto’, which may be rendered by any of the courts.”

In Workers Compensation matters, La. R.S. 23:1201.3 states, “Any compensation awarded and all payments thereof directed to be made by order of the workers’ compensation judge shall bear judicial interest from the date compensation was due until the date of satisfaction. The interest rate shall be fixed at the rate in effect on the date the claim for benefits was filed with the office of workers’ compensation administration.”

La. R. S. 13:4202 sets forth the method for the annual calculation of judicial interest in Louisiana:  “The commissioner of financial institutions shall ascertain, on the first business day of October of each year, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors approved ‘discount rate’ published daily in the Wall Street Journal. The effective judicial interest rate for the calendar year following the calculation date shall be three and one-quarter percentage points above the discount rate as ascertained by the commissioner.” In consideration of these factors set by statute, the Judicial Interest Rate for 2024 will be set at 8.75%.

For context, the historic rates for the last 20 years are:

2023-  6.50%

2022-  3.50%

2021-  3.50%

2020-  5.75%

2019-  6.00%

2018-  5.00%

2017-  4.25%

2016-  4.00%

2015-  4.00%

2014-  4.00%

2013-  4.00%

2012-  4.00%

2011-  4.00%

2010-  3.75%

2009-  5.50%

2008-  8.50%

2007-  9.50%

2006-  8.00%

2005-  6.00%

2004-  5.25%

Court Examines Requirements of Financing Provision in Purchase Agreement for  Residential Property

Purchase agreements for residential property routinely include financing provisions that require the buyer to show that he has applied for a loan. The Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently analyzed such a provision in Abdelqader v. Ramos. The plaintiff in Abdelqader entered into a purchase agreement with the defendant for an unimproved lot on which the plaintiff planned to build his home.

The financing provision in the purchase agreement required the buyer to provide the seller with (1) written documentation; (2) from a lender; (3) that a loan application has been made; and (4) that Buyer authorized lender to proceed with the loan approval process. The provision also required that this documentation be provided to the seller “within 3 calendar days after” the date of Agreement.

After the parties executed the purchase agreement, various disputes led the seller to terminate the agreement and re-list the property for sale. The plaintiff sued for stipulated damages and attorney’s fees, which were allowed under the contract if either party breached the purchase agreement.

The buyer introduced evidence that his agent sent the seller’s broker a USDA pre-approval letter and certificate of eligibility for financing under a USDA Rural Development Program. These documents were sent to the seller’s agent before the parties executed the purchasing agreement. Generally, such pre-approval letters show the buyer appears qualified for a loan in the amount of the purchase. They do not confirm a loan was applied for or approved by the lender for the property to be purchased.

The seller argued that the pre-approval letter furnished by the buyer before the parties entered into the purchase agreement was not an actual loan application and did not verify that a loan application for the purchase had been made. The seller also argued that the buyer did not comply with the terms of the financing provision because he did not provide the subject documents within the three-day window after the purchase agreement was signed. The court rejected these arguments. The Court found the agreement did not require the buyer to produce his loan application to the seller or that the loan application be dated within three days of the Agreement. The buyer’s lender produced the pre-approval letter and the certificate of eligibility in response to the buyer’s application for financing and pursuant to the buyer’s instruction to proceed with the loan process. Though its ruling may be limited to the facts of this case, the Court found that the buyer complied with the terms of the financing agreement.

It appears the court viewed the seller’s claim that the seller did not comply with the financing provision of the purchasing agreement as after the fact justification for the seller unilaterally terminating the purchase agreement for some unrelated dispute. The Court found that the seller breached the purchase agreement and awarded the buyer stipulated damages of 10% of the contract price and attorney’s fees. This ruling also serves as a reminder that purchase agreements for residential properties are contracts, and breaches of these contracts can have consequences if terminated on a whim.

Reference:

Abdelqader v. Ramos, 2022-0305 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/30/22), 353 So.3d 750.

Make Sure You Are Sure! – A Comment on the Finality of Settlement Agreements under Louisiana Law

Preparing for a trial is a tense and stressful process for attorneys and their clients.  Sometimes, during trial preparation, a crucial piece of evidence can come to light that may push a case from a path towards trial to a path towards a settlement agreement. A “settlement” or “compromise” under Louisiana law is just that – an agreement between the parties to settle the dispute raised in the lawsuit, usually with the exchange of a sum of money.  Often, settlements are reached in the weeks leading up to trial or even on the courthouse steps. 

This type of scenario occurred in Nola Title Company, LLC v. Archon Information Systems.  While in the thick of trial preparation, audio recordings from one of the parties were discovered. That party concluded this evidence would be prejudicial to its case at trial, which spurred settlement negotiations.  The parties eventually agreed to a compromise and notified the court of the settlement via an email to the judge’s law clerk.  The next day, the attorneys reported to court and verbally outlined the terms of the settlement agreement on the official court record. 

Two weeks later, the defendants hired new counsel.  Two months after that, counsel for the plaintiff forwarded the formal settlement documents to memorialize the agreement that was made between the parties and entered into the court’s record.  However, the defendants refused to sign the paperwork and did not timely make the payments that previously were agreed upon.  Therefore, the plaintiff filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement.

In opposition to the motion to enforce, the defendants argued: 1) that their prior counsel did not have authority to enter into the settlement agreement; and 2) that the agreement on the record of the court was invalid because it did not include a provision about the audio recording, which the defendant claimed was a key element of the agreement between the parties.  After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court found that the settlement that was stated on the record was an enforceable settlement agreement.

The Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the trial court.  In its opinion, the appellate court includes a summary of the law governing settlements in Louisiana.  After a thorough review of the applicable law, the court came to the following conclusions:

  • The settlement agreement on the record of the court was a binding settlement agreement, even if the parties contemplated a future formal written agreement;
  • When a compromise is placed on the record, the recital must include full disclosure of the material terms;
  • Any “missing terms” from the recorded settlement agreement were not a material element of the settlement; and
  • The defendants’ prior counsel had authority to enter into the settlement as written.

Based upon the court’s ruling, if the parties have a meeting of the minds and settlement terms are entered on the trial court record, there are no “do-overs” or “take-backs.”  It is important to “make sure you are sure” when entering the crucial courthouse steps settlement agreement.

References:

Nola Title Company, LLC v. Archon Information Systems, et. al., 2022-CA-0967 (La. App. 4 Cir. 4/13/23), 360 So. 3d 166.

Louisiana First Circuit Finds for State Trooper in Fatal Shooting

On July 27, 2023, the Louisiana First Circuit entered judgment in favor of Louisiana State Trooper Andre Bezou in the shooting death of Coltin LeBlanc. The case was defended by Keogh Cox attorneys Drew Blanchfield, Brian Butler, and Collin LeBlanc. In support of its ruling, the First Circuit cited La. R.S. 9:2798.1 which provides qualified immunity for an officer’s actions, unless their action constituted “criminal, fraudulent, malicious, intentional, willful, outrageous, reckless, or flagrant misconduct.” The court found Trooper Bezou was entitled to qualified immunity under the facts of this case.

After midnight in an area of Hammond, La. dotted with bars and restaurants, Trooper Bezou spotted LeBlanc driving a large Ford truck. Trooper Bezou testified that he witnessed two traffic violations and initiated a stop. “Bodycam” footage captured the interaction. LeBlanc exited the vehicle, and when the trooper asked for identification, LeBlanc indicated it was in his truck. LeBlanc moved to the cab of the truck, and Trooper Bezou followed, stopping within the open driver’s side door. Based upon his observations during this interaction, Trooper Bezou suspected LeBlanc was intoxicated. Later testing confirmed that LeBlanc had a blood alcohol level more than two times the legal limit.

But LeBlanc was not attempting to retrieve his license. Instead, he revved the engine and attempted to flee with Trooper Bezou immediately next to the vehicle. Trooper Bezou later testified he feared that LeBlanc would steer the vehicle to run him over with the back left wheel. In reaction, Trooper Bezou latched onto the truck and LeBlanc sped around a corner and down the roadway. Trooper Bezou was able to draw his weapon and gave multiple orders to stop. Trooper Bezou testified that he feared he would be thrown from the vehicle or scraped against parked cars in the area. When the trooper received no indication LeBlanc would relent, he opened fire. Thereafter, the truck came to a rest.

In the subsequent litigation, plaintiffs argued that Trooper Bezou used “excessive force” and should have attempted to move away and allow LeBlanc to flee the scene. In response, Keogh Cox cited Harmon v. City of Arlington, 16 F.4th 1159 (5th Cir. 2021), where the federal Fifth Circuit held that no “clearly established precedent” would prohibit an officer from firing while perched on the running board of a fleeing vehicle. Finding no excessive force under the facts of the case, Harmon acknowledged the simple truth that “there is an obvious threat of harm to an officer” who is “on the side of a fleeing vehicle.” The facts presented to the First Circuit showed that Trooper Bezou gave more warning to relent than was given in Harmon.

The New York Times covered this incident in an article titled, “Before the Final Frame: When Police Missteps Create Danger.” 11/17/21. In its coverage, the New York Times reported that Trooper Bezou “appeared to be in grave danger.” It then suggested that the trooper could have just backed away. However, courts are instructed not a gauge questions of immunity from an out-of-context application of “20/20 hindsight.” Because the facts in this case showed Trooper Bezou was in grave danger “at the moment” force was used and was faced with a split-second decision, he was protected from liability.

A Matter of Control: Vicarious Liability in Construction Projects

Under Louisiana’s comparative fault system, each party in a lawsuit generally is only liable for their own percentage of fault. However, in some instances, a party may be “vicariously” liable for the fault of another party. One example of vicarious liability is an employment relationship, where an employer can be liable for the fault of its employees. On the other hand, vicarious liability generally does not apply when the alleged “employee” is found to be an independent contractor. Whether a worker qualifies as an employee or an independent contractor often becomes an important issue in suits related to construction projects.

The test for determining whether a party is an employee or an independent contractor involves analysis of who has the right to control his or her work. In the construction context, courts distinguish between “operational control” (which suggests an employment relationship) and control as it relates to the results of the work (which suggests an independent contractor relationship). Two recent cases examine this issue and provide examples of how courts analyze the type of control necessary to establish vicarious liability in the construction projects.

In Stonetrust Com. Ins. Co. v. TBT Contracting, Inc. of LA, homeowners hired a general contractor to renovate their home. During the project, an electrical subcontractor was injured after falling through an attic space. It was alleged that the general contractor created a hazard by cutting a hole in the attic and concealing it. The plaintiff sued the general contractor and the homeowner. The court had to determine whether the homeowner could be liable for the subcontractor’s injuries, which would require a finding that the homeowner was vicariously liable for the general contractor’s fault.

The plaintiff argued that the homeowners were particularly involved in the project. It presented evidence to show the homeowners would give suggestions regarding the work to be performed and also directed alterations or additions to the work. The plaintiff argued that this demonstrated control over the general contractor’s work. However, the court disagreed. Despite the homeowners’ level of involvement, the court held that their control was limited to the results of the work, and was not “operational control.” The general contractor therefore was an independent contractor, and the homeowners were not vicariously liable for its acts.

In Baham v. Fisk Elec. Co., a city worker brought suit against a general contractor after suffering injuries from an electrical shock. The worker alleged that the general contractor was vicariously liable for the fault of its subcontractor. While evidence showed the subcontractor relied on the general contractor for the location of its work, the court found that this was not “operational control.” The court observed that general contractors are entitled to exercise supervisory control over its independent contractors to ensure compliance with the contract. It further found that suggestions or instructions given to an independent contractor do not equate to control over the methods or details of the work. Absent such “operational control” vicarious liability could not be imposed.

Though they may be limited to their facts, these cases show courts usually require a showing of more than suggestions or instructions regarding the work to establish the “operational control” necessary to trigger vicarious liability. Absent such a showing, independent contractors usually remain independent.

Case References:

Stonetrust Com. Ins. Co. v. TBT Contracting, Inc. of LA, 2022-0971 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/14/23), 2023 WL 2947826

Baham v. Fisk Elec. Co., 2022-0551 (La. App. 4 Cir. 3/22/23), 2023 WL 2595253

Louisiana Supreme Court Clarifies Analysis for Open & Obvious Conditions

It seems intuitive that people have an obligation to avoid potentially harmful conditions that are open and obvious. Nevertheless, treatment of open and obvious conditions in Louisiana law has proved tricky because many cases did not apply a uniform analytical framework. In Farrell v. Circle K Stores, Inc. and the City of Pineville, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently offered needed guidance on the appropriate analysis for open and obvious conditions.

The plaintiff stopped at a gas station and decided to walk her dog in a nearby grassy area. To get to the grassy area, Farrell had to cross a pool of water that was “approximately the length of a tractor-trailer.” Farrell attempted to jump across the narrowest part of the pool, but slipped and fell. She sued for damages arising from her injuries. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the condition was open and obvious. The trial court and court of appeal denied the defendants’ motion. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed the matter and reversed.

In finding that the condition was open and obvious, the court began its analysis by outlining the elements that a plaintiff must establish to recover for damage arising from a defect under Louisiana Civil Code articles 2315, 2316, 2317 and 2317.1:

  • That the defendant owed plaintiff a duty to conform its conduct to a specific standard;
  • That the defendant breached the duty owed;
  • That the defendant’s conduct was the cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries;
  • That the defendant’s conduct was the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; and,
  • That the plaintiff suffered damages.

The court also highlighted the requirement under La. R.S. 2317.1 that plaintiff show the defendant knew or should have known of the condition before the injury occurred.

The court noted that some courts had assessed whether a condition was open and obvious in the context of whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, while other courts had assessed whether a condition was open and obvious in the context of whether the defendant had breached the duty that was owed. In Farrell, the court found a duty was owed under the code articles referenced above. It clarified that whether a condition was open and obvious should be considered during analysis of whether the duty was breached, pursuant to Louisiana’s “risk/utility” test. This test requires consideration of whether the condition presented an unreasonable risk of harm, which considers whether the condition had any social utility; the likelihood and magnitude of harm the condition presented; the cost of preventing the harm; and the nature of the plaintiff’s conduct, including whether plaintiff’s conduct was socially useful or inherently dangerous.

Specifically, whether a condition is open and obvious should be considered in determining the likelihood of harm and magnitude of harm to an objectively reasonable person. The court further advised that the specific nature of the condition should be considered, such as its location and size. In contrast, a plaintiff’s particular and subjective knowledge of the condition is not relevant in determining whether defendant has breached a duty.

The Farrell court applied this analysis to the facts. It found that the pool served no useful purpose. No evidence existed regarding the cost to eliminate the risk. With respect to Farrell’s conduct, the court found that walking a dog was not dangerous by nature and may have an important social function, but this did not weigh heavily in the analysis. However, with respect to whether the condition as open and obvious, the court considered the location of the pool at the edge of the parking lot, the size of the pool, and the fact that it was apparent to all who encountered it. Thus, the condition was open and obvious, and the likelihood of and magnitude of the harm was minimal.

The court concluded that these factors collectively showed the condition was not unreasonably dangerous. The defendants did not breach their duty to plaintiff, and summary judgment should have issued for the defendants. In so holding, the Supreme Court provided clarifying guidance on analysis of open and obvious conditions under Louisiana law.

Case Reference:

Farrell v. Circle K Stores, Inc. and the City of Pineville, 2022-000849 (La. 3/17/23), — So.3d —-, 2023 WL 2550503.

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.