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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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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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Redhibition is defined as “the nullification of sale because of a defect in the article sold of such nature as to make it totally or virtually unusable or as to have prevented the purchase if known to the buyer.” An automobile redhibition case involves some hidden defect in the car that, if the purchaser would have known about it, would make it likely that the purchaser would not have bought it. For example, the fact that the car does not run at all, would likely be a reason that a purchaser would not want to buy the car. A defect such as this would allow the buyer to get their money back for the sale or, at least, a reduction in the purchase price.

The theories stated above apply to used vehicles as well as new ones. In 2007, a couple bought a car from Ford that, although was used, was certified to be in good condition. However, shortly after the purchase the couple noticed significant water leaks in the vehicle. At first, they thought the moon roof was just left open. Gradually, they realized that that was not the case.

In fact, the leaks got so bad that the couple was forced to put towels on the seat, put a plastic bag over the driver’s legs, and vacuum the water out of the car frequently. Finally, the mildew odor got so bad that they had to get a replacement vehicle. After several attempts at repairs, the couple was informed that the leaks could not be fixed. They hired an attorney and brought the suit for redhibition in the Pineville City Court.

In order to have a claim against Ford, the couple needed to prove that the defect existed at the time of manufacture, and did not develop later. As the car manufacturer, Ford is presumed to have knowledge of the defects of the products that it manufactures. In this case, Ford attempted to argue that the leaking problems were likely caused by poor maintenance and a failure to clean out the drainage tubes in the vehicle. However, the court scoffed at this argument and pointed out that the couple had the entire front end of the car removed, cleaned, repaired, and put back on. Nonetheless, the leaking continued.

The couple pointed out that the Technical Service Bulletin, a publication that describes defects in vehicles and how maintenance personnel can handle them, stated that water leaks in that type of vehicle could occur due to a roof-opening panel. This bulletin explained that there were serious manufacturing flaws in the moon roof drainage system in some of the Ford vehicles, the couple’s vehicle included. Ford argued that this bulletin did not assume that their particular vehicle had problems. However, the court took the bulletin into significant consideration.

Lastly, Ford argued that if there were a manufacturing problem, then the previous owners would have noticed the problem and reported it. The previous owner made no such complaint. However, since Ford had no documentation or direct proof that the previous owners were not having problems, the court disregarded this argument as well.

The court found that the couple met the qualifications for proving that the defect was caused by manufacture and not by any fault of their own. Had they known about the defects, they likely would not have purchased the vehicle. Therefore, the court awarded the purchase price of the vehicle and other fees to the couple.

Manufacturing defects are not always easy to detect. It is important that you make a thorough inspection of your vehicle and report any defects. You should not have to pay for a defective product.

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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 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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The state of Louisiana, like many other states, has very specific requirements that the judicial branch uses to help interpret contracts when the parties are in dispute. Generally, the court likes to stay out of contracts because the right to contract without interference from the government is something that the American society greatly cherishes. The ability to contract is a basic fundamental right that is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court will usually only interfere if there is a dispute or if the contract was in some way illegal. Therefore, it is very important to have a contract that is well written and that all parties understand completely.

If the court has to step in to work with a contract, then it will follow a few select guidelines. The ultimate goal of the court is to determine the common intent of the parties and enforce the contract in that way. In order to determine the intent, the court will look to the contract itself. In contracts that include terms of art or very technical requirements, the court will look to the common use of the word within that trade. For example, some trades include quantity information that is always larger than actually stated; think of a “baker’s dozen.” Even though twelve is technically considered a dozen, a contract between bakers may actually mean thirteen. This notion disregards the fact that in any other contract that is not between bakers, a dozen would equal twelve.

The court will also consider the contract in its entirety, not just a few sections or a single disputed term. It will determine what outcome is practical for both parties and technical terms will be given their technical meaning. In addition, if a word has more than one meaning, then the court will defer to the meaning that will carry out the goal of the contract. Consider a simple example. If a grocery store contracts to receive bananas and they receive plastic bananas instead of real bananas, the court will likely conclude that the other party providing the plastic bananas was at fault because the definition of a banana is commonly a consumable food, especially if it is going to be sold at a grocery store. The contract did not say that the grocery store wanted edible bananas, but the court will assume this information because the outcome becomes ridiculous without this assumption.

The court will generally try to stay within the language of the contract when attempting to resolve disputes. When the contract is clear and doesn’t lead to ridiculous consequences, then external evidence provided by the parties to show an alternative intent cannot be considered. The contract’s wording is therefore very important. However, if the contract is not clear or is ridiculous, then the court can consider some outside evidence in order to determine the common intent of the parties. In our banana example, if the grocery store has always ordered real bananas from this seller and has never requested plastic bananas from this seller, then that information could be considered in the court’s analysis.

The court has a means to determine whether the meaning of the contract is clear or not. Obviously if a term or issue is missing from the contract entirely, then the court will most likely deem the issue to be unclear or ambiguous. In addition, the court will also reason that an issue is ambiguous when “the language used in the contract is uncertain or is fairly susceptible to more than one interpretation.” If this is the case, then the outside evidence can be used to determine what the intent of both parties actually is.

A well written contract will convey the intention of both parties and will define all of its questionable terms so that there is no contention in the future. Sometimes, one party does not think a term in unclear when it actually is, so a conflict will arise. Competent attorneys are needed to create a well written contract and deal with conflict.

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A summary judgment is rendered when a trial court decides that there are no genuine issues of material fact that need to be determined. “Manifestly erroneous” is the high standard under which summary judgments are reversed on appeal. Summary judgments are cheaper and less time consuming than full blown trials; they are a means toward the end of judicial expediency, a goal that becomes increasingly important to our judicial system over time. Despite the importance of this procedural device, many cases do not call for summary judgment. Sometimes trial courts grant full or partial summary judgments in error and are reversed. That is what occurred in the case of Jagneux v. Frohn, which you can read here.

The defendants in this case convinced the trial court that no issues of fact existed that required litigating. Their legal journey was not over though due to the plaintiff’s appeal. The court of appeals applied the standard promulgated by the Louisiana Supreme Court. This Louisiana Supreme Court’s standard initially places the burden of proof on the party that is moving for a summary judgment. The moving party must prove that one or more elements of the adverse party’s claim or defense lacks any factual support on the record so far. The opposing party is then granted an opportunity to prove that there have been facts alleged that support that party’s position. At the time of summary judgment the record is sparse so a granting of summary judgment represents a finding by the court that no facts supporting a particular party’s, in this case the plaintiff’s, position.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision in this case because it found that the issue of whether Mrs. Kling, a defendant in this case, was the driver of the white SUV at the time that it, at least partially, caused the accident at issue in this case. Because there was conflicting evidence about where Mrs. Kling was and whether or not she was actually in control of the car at the time of the accident, summary judgment was not the right choice in this case. The trial court is not to weigh the merits of the case when addressing summary judgment. Summary judgment is only appropriate in cases where no potentially meritorious case is presented by one of the parties.

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