Articles Posted in Contractor Problems

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If you have ever been injured on the job or if you have ever known an employee who broke the law while on the job, you might know something about an employee-employer relationship and the legal obligations that come with such a relationship. Typically, if you are working for an employer and one of the two above-mentioned scenarios happens (in addition to several other possible scenarios), the employer can be held vicariously liable for the actions of the employee. Furthermore, the employer’s insurer might also be held liable if the accident or unlawful behavior happened while on the job.

A recent case that took place in the Parish of Lafayette helps illustrate some of the issues of the employee-employer relationship and when exactly an employer might be held liable for the actions of someone else. In this Lafayette case, a lady had been riding on the back of a motorcycle when the driver of her motorcycle suddenly collided with another motorcycle. At the time of the accident, the driver was pulling into the parking lot of a truck stop. As a result of the collision, the female rider suffered severe brain injuries and was permanently disabled.

In response to the serious injuries suffered by their daughter, the woman’s parents each sued several parties and insurers seeking recovery for the damages suffered by both their daughter and themselves individually. One of the parties was a business owner of the truck stop who the parents argued was the employer of one or both of the motorcycle operators involved in the collision. According to the parents’ lawsuits, under the employee-employer relationship, the truck stop owner was vicariously liable because the motorcycle operators were working for the owner of the truck stop at the time of the accident. Despite these allegations, the parents’ suits against the employer were dismissed when the employer filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted.

On appeal, the parents argued that the motion for summary judgment should not have been granted for several different reasons, one of them being that there was an issue of fact as to whether or not the two motorcycle operators were employees of the truck stop owner. In response to their appeal, the court shed light on some of the important considerations that must be made when analyzing an employee-employer relationship.

First, the court looked to another Louisiana case, Savoie v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 347 So.2d 188 (La. 1977), in order to determine if an employee-employer relationship exists. In determining the existence of such a relationship, one of the main issues that has to be analyzed is whether or not the employer exercises sufficient right of control and supervision over the employee.

Some of the factors that might result in a court determining that right of control does exist are selection and engagement of a a worker, whether or not the individual receives wages, the power of control the employer exercises over the worker, and whether or not the employer has the power to dismiss the individual.

Ultimately, the court found that neither motorcycle operator was an employee of the truck stop owner and that the motion for summary judgment was proper. Neither driver received wages from the truck stop owner, and even if one of the motorcycle operators had been delivering a part to the owner, as was alleged, that alone was not enough to make him an employee, especially in light of the fact that the owner and the operator had been friends for years.

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One area where lawyers must continue to improve is drafting contracts. It is imperative that lawyers learn the intricacies of legal writing and the different meanings words have in the legal community and their ordinary meaning. If a word or phrase in a company’s contract is ambiguous, it is susceptible to multiple interpretations and might result in litigation at some point. A common example of litigation like this involves insurance policies. Therefore, it’s important to draft clear and concise contracts in order to save the time, money, and effort associated with litigation.

Ambiguous contractual provisions are to be strictly construed against the insurer and in favor of coverage for the insured. Insurance coverage is meant to protect the insured, so the public policy reflects this favoring. However, this strict construction rule applies only if the ambiguous policy provision is susceptible to two or more reasonable interpretations. The key is that it must be reasonable, not just another interpretation. If the word or phrase is clear, then no further interpretation is necessary. The words and phrases used in insurance policies are to be construed using their plain, ordinary, and generally prevailing meaning unless the words have acquired a technical meaning.

This seems to be a clear explanation of how contract terms are to be interpreted, but even so, many cases arise with an insured claiming that a certain phrase is ambiguous and they should not be denied relief under their policy. For example, Herbert Farms, who conducts a rice farming operation in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, claimed the phrase “rice drying house” in their policy was ambiguous and other reasonable interpretations of the phrase was possible. Herbert Farms filed a claim for losses under its policy when its rice was damaged while in storage, seeking coverage under a section that listed “grain tanks” as covered property. However, there is a clear and unambiguous exclusionary clause that states that property covered in certain sections, including the section listing grain tanks, is not covered. The two pertinent pieces of property not covered in Herbert Farms’ policy were the contents of a rice warehouse and rice drying houses.

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Years after Hurricane Rita, which hit in September 2005, those who have had their homes damaged are still dealing with cleaning up the wreckage and rebuilding. Litigation involving insurance companies is still particularly prominent. One couple from Lake Charles, Louisiana knows about this type of litigation all too well.

The couple had homeowners insurance through State Farm and made a claim for damage to their home as result of the storm. State Farm paid them for the damages and they began to rebuild. However, after the claims were settled, the couple found that significant damage to the home’s rafters in the attic. An adjuster came right over and paid the couple for damage to three windows. The rafters, on the other hand, were a different question. There was a separation between the center beam and the rafters that connected to the center beam to support the roof; the center beam was essential to the strength and integrity of the home’s overall structure. State Farm explained that the couple needed to have the opinion of an engineer to support their claim for damage to the rafters.

In Louisiana, like many other states, lay people are generally not allowed to offer their opinions at trial. Instead, they are supposed to supply facts and the jury or judge is supposed to provide their opinion, resulting in the outcome of the trial. The witness should not substitute their opinion for that of the factfinder. However, if the witness is certified as an expert in a particular area, then they can give their opinion to the court.

Testimony of expert witnesses is particularly useful in highly technical trials. For example, if an individual is suing for a personal injury, it may be helpful to have a doctor come in to explain the injury and state how he or she thinks the plaintiff acquired the injury. If you can only acquire the injury a certain way, then the fact finder should know that information so they can provide an accurate final verdict.

In this case, the couple had their contractor come in to testify. Their contractor built the home and testified as to his opinion of how the damage occurred. He was a valuable witness because he could tell the judge that when he built the home, the center beam and rafters were not separated as they are now. He explained that if they were separated like that, then the house would not have been up to code and the couple could not have lived there.

The couple also employed an engineer to testify at the trial regarding the cause of the split in the rafters. The engineer looked at the house after the storm and, using his experience, explained that only extremely high winds could have created that kind of damage in the time between when the house was built and shortly after Hurricane Rita hit. He also stated that the home’s structure would have continued to get worse if the attic frame was not properly restored.

State Farm argued that the contractor was not an appropriate expert because he was not trained to be an expert regarding causation of the movement in the rafters. Because he was not an engineer, he could not compute the effect of the wind speed on the house nearly as well as an engineer could. However, State Farm did not like the engineer that the couple used either. In fact, they argued, the contractor did not even use the correct wind speed when he calculated the effect of the wind, so his testimony should be entirely discredited.

The court determined that both the contractor’s and the engineer’s testimony would remain in evidence. First, it concluded that the contractor was not retained as an expert for the trial, so he did not need to be qualified as an expert. Instead, he spoke about the before and after affects regarding the rafters. Louisiana law allows witnesses who are not experts to testify about their inferences and opinions if they are “rationally based upon the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of [the] testimony or determination of the fact at issue.” In addition, the court kept the engineer’s testimony because they determined that even though he had used the incorrect wind speed in his calculations, the correct wind speed would not have changed the outcome of his opinion.

Witnesses can make or break a case, and expert witnesses are particularly important to explain technical concepts that the average person may not understand. Those technical concepts are usually essential to the case.

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A recent United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit case set out an extensive definition and explanation of summary judgment. Summary judgment occurs when there are “no genuine dispute[s] as to any material fact.” That is, both parties agree with all of the facts that are used to determine the case. A “material fact” is one that could affect the overall outcome of the case based on the applicable law. When summary judgments are appealed, the appeals court uses a de novo standard–they look at all the facts and apply the same standards as the lower court would. They examine the facts “in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” However, the court will not just accept unsubstantiated allegations in favor of the nonmoving party; the claims have to have some support. The nonmoving party is the party that won summary judgment in the lower court, so the moving party is the party that is contesting the summary judgment.

When examining a summary judgment on appeal, the moving party has the burden of proving that summary judgment is inappropriate. In order to do that, the moving party must show that there is some dispute regarding a material fact. The burden is somewhat light if the moving party would not have the burden if the case went to trial. Instead, the moving party would only have to show, “that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case” instead of proving that the evidence may weigh in the moving party’s favor. Once the moving party has proven their burden, then the nonmoving party will take the burden and must counter the moving party’s arguments.

In the Fifth Circuit case, a homeowner alleged that Hurricane Ike caused damage to his roof that his insurance company should cover. His roof was leaking and he pointed out that the wind likely damaged his roof, causing water leaks. State Farm, his insurance company, completed an evaluation of the roof and determined that he was missing four shingles, had four damaged ridge caps and had acquired one fresh interior water spot. State Farm concluded that most of the damage that the plaintiff complained of was actually damage that could have only occurred over several years due to deterioration or faulty workmanship when the roof was installed. The State Farm insurance policy did not cover these two latter instances, but provided reimbursement for the damaged shingles, ridge caps, and the new water spot in the ceiling. State Farm awarded roughly $450.00.

The plaintiff was very unhappy with this result and conducted damage evaluations of its own, each of which concluded that the damage was considerably higher than State Farm provided. However, these damage reports did not mention how the damage was caused; they just explained how much it would cost to fix the water damage as a whole. State Farm also conducted damage evaluations that separated any damage likely caused by Hurricane Ike and damage caused by leaking over time. Their evaluations were consistent with what they already awarded the plaintiff.

Based on the various evaluations, the lower court granted summary judgment for State Farm and the Fifth Circuit affirmed that decision. The Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff, as the moving party, could not meet his burden to override the summary judgment determination. The Court found that the evaluations as to any damage that Hurricane Ike may have caused were extremely important in this case. Since the only wind damage would have been related to the missing shingles, damaged ridge caps, and small water spot, and State Farm already paid for that, the Court found no reason to override the summary judgment.

Once summary judgment has been awarded, it is somewhat difficult to overcome on appeal.

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The Louisiana Supreme Court has recently undertaken a case deciding whether arbitration clauses in attorney-client retainer agreements are appropriate. In the past, Louisiana has favored the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Arbitration avoids taking a case to trial and is a thrifty and efficient way to conduct the resolution of disputes outside of the courts. During arbitration, each party refers its dispute to an arbitrator, who then imposes a decision that is legally binding for both sides. However, Louisiana law also imposes a fiduciary duty requiring attorneys to act with the utmost fidelity and forthrightness in their dealings with clients and any contractual clause, which may limit the client’s rights against the attorney is subject to the upmost scrutiny.

According to the Louisiana Supreme Court in Hodges v. Reasonover, there is no per se rule against such binding arbitration clauses, provided that they are fair and reasonable to the client. In Hodges v. Reasonover, Jacqueline Hodges, the founder, sole shareholder, and CEO of Med-Data Management, Inc., hired Kirk Reasonover of the law firm of Reasonover & Olinde to sue a company known as MedAssets, Inc. in federal court in Atlanta, Georgia. In the retainer agreement between Hodges and Reasonover there was an arbitration clause, which essentially provided that any dispute shall be submitted to arbitration in New Orleans, Louisiana and that such arbitration shall be submitted to the American Arbitration Association (AAA).

Hodges was ultimately unsuccessful on her suit against MedAssets, Inc., which led her to file suit for legal malpractice against Reasonover. According to the Louisiana Supreme Court, Courts must closely scrutinize attorney-client agreements for signs of unfairness or overreaching by the attorney. Further, Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(h)(1) prohibits a lawyer from “prospectively limiting the lawyer’s liability to a client for malpractice unless the client is independently represented in making the agreement.”

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Settling with an insurance company out of court is commonplace in the legal world. However, entering into a “High/Low” agreement prior to trial can come back to hurt a plaintiff and should be carefully worded and considered before executed. The cost of this kind of failure is exemplified in Soileau v. Smith True Value and Rental.

In November 2007, plaintiff Mary Solieau sustained serious injuries when a John Deere front-end loader detached from a John Deere tractor and shattered her leg while she was supervising the cleaning out of canals for the Town of Mamou. The tractor was rented from Smith’s Hardward, insured by Defendant Hartford Insurance Company.

Before proceeding to trial, Solieau entered into a “high/low” agreement with Hartford, capping Hartford’s liability at its policy limit of $2,500,000 and further releasing the Smiths of any personal obligation. At trial, Solieau moved to dismiss the Smiths, which led to Hartford filing for a directed verdict based on the language of its policy, which obligated Hartford to pay only those sums that its insured becomes legally obligated to pay. The trial court denied the motion.

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Even in 2012, issues regarding Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in 2005, are still prevalent. Insurance companies are particularly affected by Katrina, and they are still attempting to sort out many claims. Some of the contract claims that are still moving through the courts are somewhat unique. For example, contracts occasionally have provisions where both parties can appoint an appraiser if the two parties cannot decide how much damage actually occurred. The insurance policies will only insure up to a certain amount, of course, but determining the amount of damage is a vital part of reimbursement of the claim.

An apartment building in Metairie, Louisiana carried insurance that had such an appraisal policy. The contract explained that both parties were to appoint their own appraiser, who is supposed to be fair and impartial. Then, a third individual, the umpire, would be appointed. The umpire takes both of the appraisers’ estimates, examines them, and then comes up with a third number that will be the final number for total damage. The two parties are supposed to appoint the umpire as well, but if the two parties cannot decide on an umpire, then the court can appoint one for them.

In this case, the court did appoint an umpire. However, the court not only appointed an umpire, but also imposed certain rules and restrictions to the appraisal process. In particular, the court restricted the documents that the umpire could receive and required that if the umpire needed to communicate with either party then the opposing party would also be included in the conversation. The communication issues required the umpire to copy both parties on e-mails, letters, and make conference calls. Communication with just one party was strictly not allowed. In addition, neither party was to give the umpire documentation of a legal nature that would attempt to convince the umpire that the award should be a certain amount. Instead, the documentation was limited to receipts, inspections, and other impartial information.

The apartment’s appraiser valued the damage at approximately $200,000, but the insurance company’s appraiser valued the damage at zero. The apartment owner argued that the insurance company’s appraiser was not being impartial because they did not award any damages. However, the insurance company noticed that the apartment owners had already fixed most of the damage using funds from other insurance companies, so the insurance company’s appraiser determined that the apartment owners were not entitled to any more damage payments.

The umpire agreed with the insurance company’s appraiser and recommended that the damage award be zero. Naturally, the apartment owner was upset by this result, so he appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the State of Louisiana. The apartment owner argued that the court interfered too much with the process–the apartment owner should have been able to give the umpire whatever documentation they wanted and communicated however they wanted.

The Court disagreed. It began its analysis by underscoring that although the two parties had an appraisal clause in their contract, the clause does not take away the court’s right to hear a case. In addition, insurance policies are contracts, and should be interpreted under the regular principles of contracts. Therefore, the court will interpret the contract using its regular meaning unless some of the phrases have gained technical definitions in that particular line of business.

The Court explained that the two parties deliberately involved the court when they stated in the contract that the court was to assign an umpire if the two parties could not agree to one. The appraisal portion of the contract did not set specific guidelines in the process, so the court stepped in to create them. The lower court explained that they were afraid the umpire was getting far too much irrelevant information, so they intervened. The Court deemed this a completely acceptable practice under the circumstances. The Court also decided that the insurance company’s appraiser was sufficiently impartial. Lastly, the Court concluded that since the lower court acted appropriately, the award of zero damages should still stand.

This case illustrates a unique clause that could potentially be helpful for the insured, but since the clause was not detailed enough to limit the court’s actions, it turned out to be detrimental.

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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? –

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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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When an accident occurs, there is usually a fight over whose insurance company will pay for the damages. The issue becomes even messier when the driver responsible for the wreck appears to be working under different employers. This was the issue in a recently decided case by the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit, which involved a wreck in Maurice.

In that case, Broussard v. Progressive Security Ins. Co., et. al., a dump truck hauling material to a construction site struck another vehicle in an intersection. The passengers of that vehicle filed a lawsuit against the driver, the subcontractor for which the driver worked, the general contractor who had hired the subcontractor and the insurance companies for both the subcontractor and the general contractor. The issue before the court was which insurance company would be held liable for damages: the subcontractor’s or the general contractor’s.

The court focused primarily on the language of the policy held by the general contractor. Under that policy, a “non-owned auto” could be covered under certain conditions. A “non-owned auto” was described as a vehicle not actually owned by the company, but were vehicles leased, hired or rented to be used in connection with the business. Thus, the question became whether the dump truck driver had been hired by the general contractor and whether or not the truck he was driving was hired or rented by the general contractor.

After analyzing the facts, the court found that, although the employee was hired by the general contractor, there was no evidence that the truck itself was hired or rented. Therefore, the subcontractor’s insurance still covered the truck and would be liable for the plaintiff’s damages.

Insurance issues like this are complex, especially in the business context. Depending on the policy, certain vehicles may be covered and others may not depending on certain circumstances. The determination of which insurance applies could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for that insurance company, and hundreds or thousands of dollars in increased premiums for the policy holder. For this reason, it is important that companies and individuals know and understand their insurance policies.

Additionally, companies must be aware of who they hire. As was touched on in the above case, employees who cause an accident while operating within the scope of their employment can place their employer in the liability hot seat. Insurance in this context will play a critical role. For example, if an employee is drunk while driving his delivery route and causes an accident, the employer and the employer’s insurance will likely be responsible for damages.

For businesses, this means hiring a questionable driver can put the company at risk of increased expenses from lawsuits and the danger of being dropped from its insurance. For individuals injured by these negligent drivers, this structure allows them to obtain the compensation they need to cover medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages. Then, hopefully, the individual can achieve a full recovery.

When an accident occurs, the last thing people want to deal with is interpreting convoluted insurance policies. Yet, these documents are of vital importance when determining who will pay for accident damages. A competent attorney can walk you through the documents and help create a legal strategy that protects your best interests.

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