Articles Posted in Chinese Drywall

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana legislature set deadlines for the filing of claims for damages resulting from the hurricanes. These dates were September 1, 2007 for claims of damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina and October 1, 2007 for claims of damage resulting from Hurricane Rita. Any claims filed beyond these dates would be subject to the exception of prescription, meaning that any legal remedies stemming from such damages would be extinguished. Under certain circumstances, however, Louisiana law allows for the suspension of prescription. For members of an ongoing class action in Louisiana state court, the deadline to file individual claims based on the same damages is suspended.

The countdown for the valid filing of individual claims begins to run again when a class member elects to be excluded from the class action or is notified that he or she has been excluded from the action, or is notified that the action has been dismissed. Once the countdown starts to run again, it resumes with how much time was left before the commencement of the class action. For instance, if there were two months remaining to file an individual claim of damages at the time a class action was started, the countdown for a class member’s individual claim would resume with two months remaining upon the member’s exclusion or the dismissal of the class action. This would hold true no matter how much time had elapsed since the class action’s commencement. However, it is crucial to note that such suspension of prescription is only allowed for class actions in Louisiana state court.

In a recent Louisiana Supreme Court case, a couple in Harvey, LA filed an individual claim for property damages resulting from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita more than two years after the deadline set by the legislature. Because the couple were members of a recently dismissed class action in federal court seeking the same damages, they argued that the countdown for the filing of their individual claim had been suspended. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled, however, that only class actions filed in Louisiana state court (rather than federal class actions, or class actions in another state’s court system) could suspend the deadline for filing claims under Louisiana law. This meant that the couple’s individual claim had long expired unless they could prove membership in a class action in Louisiana state court for the same damages during that period.

The “New York Convention” (9 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq.) gives a U.S. court the ability to enforce a foreign arbitration award if there is personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Personal jurisdiction is when the defendant can expect to appear in a foreign country’s court because the defendant has minimum contacts with the country. First Inv. Corp. v. Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding, Ltd. reaffirms that personal jurisdiction is necessary when a plaintiff is trying to confirm an arbitration award.

In First Inv. Corp., a Marshall Islands corporation and Chinese shipbuilding company entered into a contract that had an arbitration clause. The Marshall Islands is a presidential republic of the United States. The U.S. provides defense, funding, social services, and its currency for use to the republic. The arbitration clause required all disputes to be resolved in neutral territory under the London Maritime Arbitrators Association rules. The English arbitration panel found for the Marshall Islands corporation, but China refused to enforce the award against the defendant because not all the arbitrators on the panel had seen the final draft of the decision. Instead of resolving the matter in either the country of arbitration or the defendant’s country, First Inv. Corp. commenced action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The case eventually appeared before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that the U.S. lacks personal jurisdiction over a Chinese shipbuilding company that has no contacts with the U.S. The Chinese company did not distribute products, conduct any transactions, or maintain property on American soil. However, the Marshall Islands plaintiff argued that since the defendant did not have any contacts with the U.S., the defendant should not be afforded the right of due process stemming from personal jurisdiction. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids states from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process.” In the district court trial, the plaintiff argued that as a corporation controlled by the Chinese government, the defendant was not entitled to due process. Ultimately, the trial court rejected the plaintiff’s argument because it would undermine the “minimum contacts” test set by the U.S. Supreme Court because a confirmation of the award would suggest that a court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant with no contacts in the U.S. The Fifth Circuit followed up by citing cases affirming due process protection for foreign corporations.

The plaintiff then argued that a confirmation of the arbitration would not affect the defendant’s “substantive rights” or fundamental protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Circuit disagreed because a confirmation of the arbitration award would allow the plaintiff to enforce the judgment in Britain.

First Inv. Corp. shows how significant it is for parties to understand U.S. legal procedures when seeking to enforce foreign arbitration awards.

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Licensed attorneys in New Orleans were asked which attorney they would recommend to residents in the New Orleans area. Attorney Jeffrey Berniard, of the New Orleans-based Berniard Law Firm, LLC, was named one of the best mass litigation and class action attorneys in New Orleans in the November 2012 issue of the magazine. Propelled into success by holding insurance companies accountable in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Berniard has built the Berniard Law Firm into one of the premiere personal injury law practices in not only New Orleans, but the entire state of Louisiana. Since Hurricane Katrina, Berniard Law Firm has focused on insurance disputes and class action litigation.

Jeffrey Berniard has been involved in several high-profile cases, solidifying his expertise in complex high risk litigation. He worked on the highly publicized Deep Water Horizon oil rig case in the Gulf Coast, representing a very large group of individuals affected by the sinking oil rig. In 2008, Berniard Law Firm secured a $35 million dollar settlement for a class of 70,000 members seeking bad faith penalties for tardy payments by a Louisiana insurance company in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. In 2009, the Berniard Law Firm participated in five class actions against insurance companies and corporations. In the process of these major claims, the firm also helped many residents of the Gulf Coast with their personal injury concerns, insurance claims and business disputes.

– What is Mass Tort Litigation? –

In Jane Doe v. Southern Gyms, LLC arising out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a class action suit was filed involving a local branch of the national gym, Anytime Fitness, was accused of taking pictures of 250-300 women changing in a locker room. The plaintiffs filed on behalf of all women who’d used the gym during the time period and the class was certified to proceed to trial.

To understand what “the class was certified” means, it is important to understand what a class action suit is the reasons why we allow class actions in the first place. Class action suits are a useful tool in litigation in that it can bring together large numbers of substantially similar or identical claims into a single proceeding. This contributes to judicial efficiency as often times the type of cases litigated as class actions can have as many as thousands of plaintiffs. Assuming each of these cases was large enough to be worth bringing to court individually, there would be substantial amounts of duplicated effort by each party. However, the real value of class actions is in allowing cases that normally would be too small to litigate individually to have their day in court. If a case involves a real injustice to thousands of people, but the actual per person damages is relatively small it would be too costly to vindicate their claims.

In this case, the class proposed was:

all females who physically entered the women’s restroom/locker room/ changing room at Anytime Fitness, 200 Government Street, Baton Rouge, LA 70802 from November 1, 2009, through and including April 5 2010.

The rules that govern class actions require that several hurdles be met before a class can be certified (allowed) to proceed: there must be enough members that litigating separately is impractical; the questions of law and facts in the case common to the parties; the class representative’s claims must be typical of the claims of the class; they are able to protect the interests of the entire class, and finally the class must be able to be adequately defined so the court can be satisfied that the suit will end the dispute.

This case is noteworthy because the actual size of the class is fairly small. The gym operator admitted to videotaping on only 10-15 occasions. While any number of women may have been victims during these periods, the class itself was certified for any woman using the gym during a nearly 6 month period. There is no rule that states the minimum number of plaintiffs required for a class action, but the appeals court did not give a rousing endorsement for the “numerosity” (size) of the class in this case, they merely deferred to the trial court judgment on the matter. What was particularly noteworthy was the court weighed concerns beyond just the actual numbers of women involved. An additional factor was evidence that the gym allowed members from around the country to use it and thus the plaintiffs might not all have been locals which would have substantially increased the burden to litigate separately. Had all the women been locals, it is possible the court would have required “joinder” or just combining separate cases rather than allowing a representative in a class action suit.

Most people have been involved in a class action suit and may not have even been aware of it. Generally, each member of the class is required to be notified to give them the opportunity to opt-out of (or into) the class. This will typically be done via a postcard by mail. Thousands of these cards are thrown away without being read yearly but they can entitle plaintiffs to small to moderate cash settlements without ever setting foot in a courtroom, as you are being represented by the person bringing the suit!

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Jason and Renee Niemann, a couple from Mandeville, Louisiana, purchased a home in 2007 in the Lakeside Village Subdivision in Mandeville, Louisiana. Unbeknownst to them, a subcontractor, Calmar Construction Company, installed Chinese drywall in the home during construction in 2006, and the Niemanns have been fighting the builder, subcontractor, and subdivision developer in court since discovering the defect in 2010.

Chinese drywall became popular amongt builders during the housing boom in 2004 because it was inexpensive and available in mass quantities. However, the defective drywall is infamous for emitting carbon disulfide, carbonyl sulfide, and hydrogen sulfide. These three sulfurous gases cause both irreparable damage to houses and severe health problems. Copper piping in the home begins to erode, taking on a black and powdery look, and residents begin experiencing respiratory issues and headaches. As a result, the house becomes uninhabitable and loses its value.

When the Niemanns signed the sales contract in 2007, they had no idea that Chinese drywall had been installed in their new home. On May 24, 2010, they filed an action in Louisiana state court, alleging breach of warranties and negligence and seeking damages from the builder, subcontractor, and subdivision developer, as well as the respective commercial general liability (CGL) insurance providers. The Niemanns argued that all three companies had been aware (or should have been) of the defects yet failed to disclose them at time of sale. As a result, they stated they had made a home purchase they would not have otherwise made, resulting in damages, economic loss, and a defective home that was unfit for its intended purpose.

During an appeal of a summary judgment order by the trial court, the appellate court asked the parties to submit briefs on whether the Niemanns had a right of action against both Calmar and Calmar’s CGL insurer, American Empire, for non-apparent damages inflicted on the house prior to sale. According to a recent Louisiana Supreme Court case, Eagle Pipe and Supply, Inc. v. Amerada Hess Corp., a plaintiff only has a right of action (or right to sue) for non-apparent damages inflicted pre-sale when there was an assignment of or subrogation of that right from the previous owner to the plaintiff. In plain English, the appellate court wanted to know if the subdivision developer and seller, Lakeside Village Development, had assigned the Niemanns its rights of remedies against Calmar and Calmar’s insurer. These rights only pass on to the new owner if specifically designated in the sale documents.

Because an appellate court can only review what is already in the record on appeal and not any documents not yet submitted into evidence, the court was unable to consider documents the Niemanns had obtained post-summary judgment that allegedly prove subrogation. As such, the court was unable to find any evidence in the facts that showed evidence of such subrogation and therefore affirmed dismissal of the Niemanns’ claims against American Empire.

With that said, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure affords plaintiffs the right to amend their petitions. As such, the Niemanns will have the ability to amend their complaint and submit the evidence of subrogation they have found.

If you suspect your home was built with Chinese drywall, contact the Berniard Law Firm. Providing the best experts in construction and diagnosing the cause of damages, our law firm is fully capable of meeting your litigation needs.

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Settlements are an important part of the legal process. They save time, money, allow the parties to negotiate their own terms, and, above all, they keep the parties from having to go to court to litigate their claims. In the case of settling with insurance companies, the companies like to avoid court because it not only costs them time and money, but also may negatively affect their reputation in the community. As such, it is common practice for an injured person to sign a release form after they receive settlement money. This release form bars the person injured from any future claims against the insurance company. Both parties usually end up happy in this situation because the person who was injured gets some compensation and the insurance company avoids the negative effects of going to court.

What happens if an injured person settles and signs a release form before they realize how badly they are injured? For example, perhaps an individual thinks they only bruised their ribs, but actually suffered from more long term effects such as kidney injuries. In that case, the injuries are likely to be much more expensive than both parties originally anticipated. Then, the injured individual does not have enough money to cover medical expenses and the insurance company gets out of paying for the extra expenses.

In Louisiana, a general release will not necessarily bar recovery for aspects of the claim that the release was not intended to cover. However, most releases are very broad in that they cover any existing injuries and injuries that may occur because of the accident in the future. Louisiana law only allows settlements to be set aside if there was an error when the settlement was signed. Two major mistakes could set aside a settlement: 1) the injured party was mistaken as to what he or she was signing even if there was no fraud involved, or 2) the injured party did not fully understand the nature of the rights being released or that they did not intend to release certain rights. A settlement can also be set aside if there is fraud or misrepresentation involved.

Louisiana Civil Code Article 1953 defines fraud as “. . . misrepresentation or a suppression of the truth made with the intention either to obtain an unjust advantage for one party or to cause a loss of inconvenience to the other. Fraud may also result from silence or inaction.” In order to determine if there is fraud involving a release, which is also a contract, the court will only look to the document itself to determine if fraud is evident. Evidence of fraud in this situation could include any intentionally incorrect statement of material fact, such as stating items that are not covered by the insurance company when those items are actually covered.

A recent case gives an excellent example of a settlement with an insurance company. In that case, an individual fell off a tractor and injured himself. Two insurance companies provided compensation for injuries relating to his fall. Once each insurance company provided compensation, they each had the injured party sign a release form to keep him from filing claims against them in the future should the injuries be worse than originally anticipated.

The injured individual did have complications with his injuries and tried to get the settlements set aside so that he could get more money based on the coverage, but because he signed the release forms and there was no evidence of fraud, the court would not set aside the settlement agreements. The court stated that the injured individual knew exactly what he was releasing and there was no mistake in the settlement. The insurance companies both provided clear statements of what they did and did not cover and provided compensation for the things they did cover. The release statements specifically said that the injured party could not sue again for the same fall even if the injuries got worse, so he could not file claims again.

One lesson to take away from this example is that it might be helpful to find out the extent of your injuries before you enter into any settlements or sign any release forms.

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Recently, in the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit, a case was decided that effectively laid out the requirements of a settlement agreement. These requirements are especially important because many cases are settled before they get to court. In fact, settlement is often preferable because it saves a significant amount of time, money, and it allows the parties to reach a compromise that they not only come up with themselves, but that is also acceptable to both parties. That way, the parties share the benefits instead of there being a clear-cut loser and clear-cut winner as is usually the situation should a case go to trial.

In this case, an individual was seeking to enforce a settlement agreement with an insurance company regarding a life insurance policy. The life insurance policy involved three beneficiaries; however, it was unclear as to when the money should go to each beneficiary. There may have been a contingent beneficiary. That is, the policy was set up so that if one of the beneficiaries had passed away prior to the money dispersion, then it would go to a different beneficiary. However, the insurance company was unsure of this stipulation, so they did not give out any money at all.

As a result of all of this confusion, one of the beneficiaries entered into negotiations with the insurance company in order to get at least some money out of the life insurance policy. Louisiana Civil Code, Article 3071, defines compromise as “a contract whereby the parties, through concession made by one or more of them, settle a dispute or an uncertainty concerning an obligation or other legal relationship.” Therefore, the parties in this case sought to compromise regarding the payment of the insurance policy.

In addition to defining compromise, the Court also points out that the settlement agreement must be in writing and signed by both parties as required by Louisiana Civil Code Article 3072. In this case, there was an oral agreement, but when the parties attempted to put the terms in writing, there was still dispute regarding the agreeability of quite a few of the terms of the settlement. They created drafts and sent them back and forth, but nothing was ever finalized by way of a signature from either party. The Court recognizes that there are no other cases where a settlement was validated even though neither party signed the final settlement agreement.

The Court also goes on to explain that contracts, which are the basis of a compromise, require that there be a “meeting of the minds.” That is, both parties should completely understand and agree to the terms in the contract. The contract embodies the intention of both parties and if the intention of both sides is not fully included in the settlement, then that settlement cannot be valid. In this case, both sides described other terms that were either not included in the agreement or that appeared, but they did not approve of their inclusion in the settlement. The Court notes that there was no “acceptance and acquiescent from both parties” in this case.

Although the settlement agreement can be included in more than one document, it is apparent that there was no such agreement. It based this conclusion on the testimony of both parties, lack of signature on the settlement agreement, and other communications between the parties at the negotiation stages in this case (such as letters between the attorneys that expressed displeasure with terms in the agreement). Therefore, the Court concluded that a settlement agreement did not actually exist and that it could not enforce a settlement agreement that does not actually exist.

Obtaining settlement agreements can be somewhat complicated because they involve getting both sides to agree to many different terms. However, they are very valuable because they allow the parties to avoid trial and get their conflicts resolved quickly. The Berniard Law Firm is always interested in solving our clients’ problems quickly and effectively.

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The legal system is not perfect; courts will make the occasional error. However, in our system, we have many different levels in order to help ensure that if there are errors, the next court in the process will work to correct it. One of the ways that a court can correct an error is to grant a new trial. A motion must be made to the court by one of the parties to signify that they would like to have a new trial. In many cases, the same judge will hear the motion and decide whether to grant a new trial. Sometimes the Court of Appeals will review the motion and send the case back down to the lower court for a “re-do.”

A new trial can only be granted for serious legal errors. These errors can be based on the judge or jury, depending on the type of trial. An obviously incorrect result based on the evidence presented would be a strong candidate as a case for a new trial. Often, new trials will be granted when the jury makes a determination that is completely contrary to the facts that were presented.1
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered a motion for a new trial in February this year. The case involved a group of three victims who were in a car accident with a company car, where the company car hit the victim’s vehicle. The three individuals were treated for injuries relating to the accident. The defendant’s liability was proven at a separate hearing, but the damages to be awarded was left up to the jury.

The jury awarded damages significantly lower than expected. Both sides presented experts to testify regarding the severity of the injuries and the treatments that the victims had to endure. The victim’s personal physicians testified and the defendant’s expert countered their testimony. The defendant’s expert pointed out that the procedures given to the victims were actually not credible treatments in the state of Louisiana and therefore unnecessary.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit determined that the reason that the jury awarded damages that were so low was because the jury found the defendant’s expert to be more credible and awarded damages accordingly. The court decided that although the damages were very low if the jury would have believed the plaintiff’s experts, they did match the statements of the defendant’s expert.

In Louisiana, the jury is given great deference and their decisions can only be altered if there is an obvious flaw in their outcome. When deciding whether or not to grant a new trial, the court can consider whether the jury gave one expert too much credit. However, because of the need to balance between the deference granted to the jury and the ability to evaluate an expert, the court is only allowed to overrule the jury in extreme cases where the expert was not credible at all.

The court gives an example of such an occasion where they can overrule rule the jury’s decision. In their example, the defense flew in an from another state and he had a reputation for the testimony that he had provided, which was meant to refute the opposing party’s testimony as well. They granted a new trial because of this unwarranted grant of credibility to this individual. In this case, however, the court did not find any of these circumstances and determined that the jury could have reasonably believed the defendant’s expert testimony.

There are many checks built into our court system and new trial is one that can be used in some occasions. Having the right attorney can help preserve this opportunity and move your case forward.

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The appellate process is somewhat complicated. One of the major confusions is when a party is allowed to appeal. The simple answer is that a party can appeal a judgment after the lower court has rendered a final decision. But, what makes a decision final? Does the decision include the case as a whole or just a single part of the case? An attorney can address these questions can specifically, but a short overview is helpful as well.

Just like the federal level, a party cannot appeal a decision without that decision being final in Louisiana. A final decision will decide all of the elements of the case. None of the issues will be excluded. The court looks at each issue and renders a decision for either one party or the other on every issue. Therefore, if the court does not address even one issue, then the decision cannot be final.

There is one exception to this rule that is provided in the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure, which governs all of the court procedures in civil lawsuits for the state. The exception states that a decision can be final even if it does not resolve all the issues as long as the court specifically states that their decision is final and gives valid reasoning for that ruling.

In a recent case, an individual brought suit against their insurance company because he believed that the insurance company failed to replace his roof adequately. He asked for attorney’s fees and penalties. The insurance company argued with this claim and the court granted their motion to dismiss the individual’s suit. The court ruled only on the attorney’s fees and penalties, and not on the adequacy of the roof’s repairs. The lower court stated that this was a final judgment, but did not give reasoning for their declaration as required by Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure. Therefore, the Louisiana Court of Appeals had to determine whether the lower court was justified in their final judgment.

Occasionally, the court will also allow a single issue to be appealed because that issue is extremely important to the rest of the case. The Louisiana Supreme Court has listed several factors to determine whether one of these “partial judgments” can be considered a final judgment for the purpose of appeal. These factors include:

– The relationship between the issues that have been resolved and the issues that have not been addressed. Does one issue need to be determined in order to find out the other? For example, the court may say that the decision cannot be final if the lower court found that car A hit car B because they did not resolve whether car B was making an illegal turn at the time of the collision. Whether car B was making an illegal turn could be a deciding factor in the case and needs to be addressed.

– Whether the issue might resolve itself as the case progresses. In the insurance case mentioned above, if the insurance company was not found to be at fault, then there would be no need to appeal the attorney’s fees and penalties because the insurance company would not be liable. There is no need to appeal when the trial court can make these determinations on its own.

– Whether the appeals court might have to consider the issue again in the future. If the court finds that they will likely have to review the issue again when the entire case is brought on appeal then they will probably not review that particular issue. Reviewing it twice would be a waste of resources for both parties.

– Miscellaneous factors such as delay, shortening the time of trial, frivolity of competing claims, expense, and economic and solvency considerations. For example, if deciding one particular issue will resolve a whole line of issues, then the appellate court may decide that issue and send it back to the lower court to finish the case.

Obviously, the court has quite a bit of discretion to decide whether or not to resolve an issue. Experienced attorneys can sometimes pick out these issues ahead of time, which would give clients an edge on appeals proceedings.

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