Category: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules Against Broad Application of Indemnity Provision in Engineer’s Contract

The Supreme Court ruling in Couvillion Group, LLC v. Plaquemines Parish Government, 2020 -00074 (La. 4/27/20) is a reminder that an indemnity claim must be sufficiently related to the principal demand and that contract indemnity provisions are to be strictly construed.

In Couvillion, the general contractor sued the owner of a public works port project for contract delay damages resulting from a cease work order issued to allow redesign of a fuel tank platform. When the contractor submitted its delay claim, the owner requested that its project engineer review it and make recommendations. The engineer recommended payment of a little over $1 million dollars. When the owner refused to pay, the contractor sued. In response, the owner filed a third-party demand against the engineer alleging that its recommendation was erroneous and excessive and that, if it was bound by the engineer’s recommendation, then the engineer must indemnify the owner.

On behalf of the engineer, Keogh Cox attorneys argued that the engineer should not be required to reimburse the owner for any delay costs and asked for dismissal through an exception of no cause of action. Code of Procedure Article 1111 provides that a defendant in a principal action may bring in any person who may be liable to him for all or part of the principal demand. Here, that was not the situation. The engineer was not liable to the owner for any part of the contractor’s delay claim because the engineer did not cause the delay. The delay damages were incurred before the engineer made a recommendation for payment. The events giving rise to the two claims were separate and distinct: the main demand arose from the project delay and the third- party demand arose from the engineer’s recommendation of the claim amount. The Court commented that the principal claim against the owner for delay damages was too attenuated from the owner’s claim against the engineer, thus the third-party demand was improper.

The owner also relied on the indemnity provision in the engineer’s contract that required the engineer to indemnify the owner against any and all claims for personal injury or “damages to property” that may arise from its services. The Court held that the plain meaning of the term did not include the economic-only losses related to the subject delay claim. The Court further reasoned that indemnity agreements are to be strictly construed, rejecting the owner’s broader interpretation.

Privacy (Or Lack Thereof) in an Increasingly Digital Age

 

“Historically, privacy was almost implicit, because it was hard to find and gather information. But in the digital world, whether it’s digital cameras or satellites or just what you click on, we need to have more explicit rules – not just for governments but for private companies.”  -Bill Gates

 

Supreme Court oral arguments were heard earlier this week in Carpenter v. United States, a closely watched case which stands to impact what privacy means in our digital age. The case will decide whether law enforcement is permitted to gather cellphone data from third-party service providers like Verizon and AT&T without a warrant. Carpenter presents the latest installment in the eternal struggle between the need for safety and the desire to prevent a surveillance state.

In Carpenter, the FBI investigated a series of robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Detroit. Suspecting that Carpenter was operating as a “getaway driver,” the FBI sought and obtained without a warrant the location data for his cell phone. This data revealed that Carpenter (or at least his cell phone) was near the stores at the times of the robberies­­­­­­––damning evidence.

Carpenter argued that the government’s collection of his cell photo data was a “search” under the 4th Amendment, a “search” which would require a warrant supported by “probable cause.” The government maintained that privacy concerns were addressed when law enforcement complied with the Stored Communications Act which allows law enforcement access upon a showing that the information sought is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation. The government further argued that there is no reason to afford greater protection to cell phone data than given to other data such as bank records and dialed telephone numbers which can be obtained without a warrant.

The issues presented in Carpenter are not new, but are magnified by the awesome power of advancing technology to track our movement and assembly with others. The Louisiana court in State v. Bone, 12-34 (La. App. 5 Cir. 9/11/12), 107 So. 3d 49, held that an exclusive user of a cell phone did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to the call detail record log associated with the phone. The court reasoned that access to the information in the detail record log was voluntarily surrendered by the defendant to the phone’s providers. However, in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), the United States Supreme Court found that the installation of a GPS device on a vehicle to monitor the vehicle’s movement was a “search” under the 4th Amendment. Carpenter addresses the intersection of these two cases.

By carrying a cell phone you know can track your movements, do you lose any reasonable expectation of privacy? Or, would allowing warrantless access to this information be akin to the prohibited GPS search in United States v. Jones? The Supreme Court will soon decide. How it chooses will impact criminal litigation and by extension how cell phone data is regarded in civil suits.  More importantly, it may also impact the relationship between citizens and their government.

 

Collin LeBlanc is a Keogh Cox partner and experienced litigator who concentrates in injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all-too-active children. He is an outdoorsman, a tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.

Supreme Court Emphasizes “Error-Correcting” as Proper Role of Appellate Courts

In a 68 page decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Hayes Fund for the First United Methodist Church of Welsh, LLC, et al. v. Kerr-McGee Rocky Mountain LLC, et al. forcefully explained the role of an appellate court. It is axiomatic that Louisiana appellate courts are courts of review.  Louisiana law specifically sets the standard of review an appellate court must apply when reviewing a trial court’s factual decisions (manifest error) or its legal decisions (de novo). According to Hayes Fund, a failure to faithfully apply the “manifest error” standard of review where applicable causes an appellate court to function as a “choice-making court” when its proper role is to serve as an “errors-correcting court.”

Less Than Obvious State of “Open and Obvious” Defense

The “open and obvious” defense remains alive and well in Louisiana according to an article penned recently by  Professor John M. Church of the LSU Law Center for the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel. In April 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court announced Broussard v. State of Louisiana, 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13), 113 So.3d 175, which muddied the waters regarding use of the “open and obvious” defense. Some read Broussard as a pronouncement that the “open and obvious” defense was essentially dead in Louisiana. However, as reflected in Professor Church’s article, subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decisions have given new life to the defense.

When No Higher Court Remains

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded at a cost of eleven lives. What followed was the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.  In the aftermath, BP looked for a solution, ostensibly to cap its exposure and address a swirling PR disaster. BP began to actively negotiate a settlement.

Keogh Cox Maintains Its Victory at the U.S. Supreme Court

Keogh Cox obtained dismissal of the suit asserted against the Sabine River Authority of Louisiana and Entergy by numerous plaintiff landowners alleging flood damages.  Plaintiffs alleged their state law negligence and constitutional claims were preserved under Section 10(c) of the Federal Power Act [16 U.S.C. § 803], which provides that the licensee is liable for “all damages occasioned by the … operation of the project works.” Because the Toledo Bend Dam was not designed or licensed as a flood control dam, Keogh Cox argued on behalf of its clients that this provision does not permit claims based on conduct not required under the FERC license. To do so, Keogh Cox argued, amounts to a collateral attack of the FERC license and wrests operational control of the licensed project away from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] and places it in the hands of a trial judge.

Volunteer Firemen “On the Hook” in Louisiana

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that the workers’ compensation tort immunity provided by LSA-R.S. 23:1032 does not apply to suits by one volunteer fireman against another volunteer. See Champagne v. American Alternative Insurance Corp., 12-1697 (La. 3/19/13), — So.3d —. LSA-R.S. 23:1036 provides that workers’ compensation is the sole and exclusive remedy provided to a volunteer fireman against a fire company. Champagne clarified that this immunity does not similarly apply to claims for personal injury brought by one volunteer fireman against another.

Sentencing Juveniles in Louisiana after Miller v. Alabama

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that a district court must reconsider a case involving a seventeen year old who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for second degree murder under a mandated penalty provision of a statute. See State of Louisiana v. Darrius R. Williams, 12-1723 (La. 03/08/13), –So.3d—. The defendant’s application for review to the Louisiana Supreme Court was pending when, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), was decided by the United States Supreme Court.

Case on a Wire – Last Minute Fax Filing

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that a request for service of process made by facsimile filing within ninety days from the filing of the petition, but not perfected until after the ninety days has passed, is a timely request for service of process under LSA-C.C.P. art. 1201. See Brenda Morales and Jerson Rodriguez v. State of Louisiana Through the Board of Supervisors of LSU Through Earl K. Long Medical Center, 12-2301 (La. 1/11/13), –So.3d—.

Oil & Gas Clean-Up Not “Capped”

Louisiana’s long relationship with oil and gas has been profitable for both the oil and gas industry and Louisiana’s citizens. However, the nature and extent of the duty to restore the land after drilling has often been a disputed and litigated issue. Recently, the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Louisiana Land and Exploration Co., 2012-0884 (La. 1/30/13), – So.3d – added clarity to the law by establishing that the presence of a Court-approved remediation plan does not create a “cap” on damages.

Louisiana Supreme Court Rejects Mental Anguish Claim

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that an insurance agent’s negligent handling of a claim did not justify an award for mental anguish in Prest v. Louisiana Citizens Property Corp., 2012-0513 (La. 12/4/12). In Prest, it was alleged that the agent negligently failed to process a request for increased insurance sent more than 10 days prior to Hurricane Katrina.