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.”

The plaintiffs in Hayes Fund alleged that negligence by Kerr-McGee caused two wells to stop producing, leaving valuable assets out of reach. After a lengthy bench trial which spanned a ten-month period and involved over twenty-five days of live testimony, the trial court found that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to prove that the defendants caused the loss. Thereafter, the Third Circuit reversed the finding of the trial court as an abuse of discretion.

The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the ruling in favor of defendants. The Court found that the primary issues in the trial court were factual issues concerning whether the experts were credible or factually correct, thus the “manifest error” standard of review should have been applied.

According to Hayes Fund, the manifest error standard of review is accomplished by undertaking a two-step process which asks: 1) whether there was any factual basis for the trial court’s conclusions; and, 2) whether the findings of the trial court were “clearly wrong.” Applying this test requires the appellate court to do more than “simply review the records for some evidence, which supports or controverts the Trial Court’s finding.”  Instead, the appellate court must review the “entire record.” The Court cautioned that an appellate court is not to “re-weigh the evidence or to substitute its own factual findings just because it would have decided the case differently.”

Through its conclusion, the Hayes Fund Court provided clear guidance moving forward, stating:

Rarely should a District Court’s choice of expert(s) be found clearly wrong because it is so difficult to find a reasonable basis does not exist for the expert’s opinion relied upon by the District Court. It is destructive to the manifest error analysis for a reviewing Court to make its choice of the evidence rather than look for clear error in the reasonable basis found by the trier of fact.  We have tortuously studied this scientific and voluminous record to demonstrate a proper manifest error review.

By its own terms, the Court intends the Hayes Fund decision in to provide “guidance” as to the “proper analysis for the reviewing Court(s).” While the principles discussed in Hayes Fund are not new or novel, the emphasis given by the Court was uniquely passionate and likely to quickly become a focus of future appellate argument and briefing.