Articles Posted in Hurricane Season Reports

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.

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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The settlement in Orrill v. Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan demonstrates some of the hurdles faced by class action litigants and the benefits of having experienced class counsel. In that case, Katrina and Rita victims sought statutory penalties for their insurers’ failure to pay claims within the 30 days required by statute. The long history of the case dates to 2005, immediately after the storms first hit. The Berniard Law Firm vigorously pursued their claims past procedural roadblocks along the way to a final settlement this past January.

While class actions provide an obviously efficient way of adjudicating large controversies, the drawbacks associated with this device are equally apparent. Class actions allow courts to resolve all claims related to an occurrence in a single proceeding. This means, however, that even claims of those who do not participate must be decided. Otherwise, class members could “free ride” off the efforts of others, waiting to see whether a legal strategy or theory will succeed or fail without expending any efforts or resources. Courts have long resolved this dilemma by requiring class action plaintiffs to provide adequate notice to those who might have claims and by requiring that participants meet a series of requirements.

First, the class must consist of a sufficiently large number of claimants. Courts have not defined this “numerosity” requirement precisely; rather, a plaintiff satisfies this requirement by establishing that traditional methods of joining parties would be unreasonably difficult or expensive. Second, the claims of the class members must involve common issues. To meet this “commonality” requirement, it is not enough simply to have claims resulting from the same injury. Instead those claims must be capable of resolution in the same way. As the United States Supreme Court has stated, what is important is not the raising of common questions, but “capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers.”

The Federal National Flood Insurance Program (“NFIP”) is a federal program that allows homeowners to protect against flooding because most homeowners insurance does not cover flooding (You can check out their website here). It is offered to homeowners, renters and some business owners. The federal government works with private insurance companies to encourage them to offer insurance. The government sets a standard rate and then the insurance is actually through the private insurance company, but involves the federal government to a great degree. The federal government underwrites, or supports the insurance company, but the private insurance company does all of the related administrative tasks.

Because of the federal government’s involvement, when there are issues with the insurance company, you must follow unique litigation paths in order to recover for any damages in many occasions. For example, the federal government will normally cover any litigation costs for the private insurance company. As such, some procedures that would normally be acceptable at the state level may not be allowed in the federal court.

A case in Mississippi that was appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals helps explain these differences. In that case, Grissom, the insured individual, had insurance under the NFIP through Liberty Mutual. He was eligible for a preferred risk insurance policy, but did not know he was eligible. After Hurricane Katrina, he argued that he would have purchased the preferred risk insurance policy if he had known about his eligibility.

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? –

In the first year of law school, nearly every student takes a course in Contracts. Contract law is one of the bases of our legal system and is at the core of almost all legal agreements. Everytime you get car insurance, sign a lease, agree to pay your plumber or electrician for work, or sign up for new cellphone service, you are dealing with a contract.

In contracts, every single word and punctuation mark is important. Clear, concise and unambiguous language is vital to writing a good contract. Sometimes even big companies enter into contracts that contain ambiguous language. These ambiguities can cause legal problems down the road. The case of WH Holdings, L.L.C. et al. v. ACE American Insurance Company illustrates how ambiguous contract language can lead to legal problems for the parties involved.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, WH Holdings, the owner of the Ritz Carlton Hotel Complex in New Orleans, hired Gootee Construction Company to renovate the existing structure of the complex. Gootee was in the process of performing the renovations when Hurricane Katrina made landfall and caused damage to the exterior of the building. WH Holdings filed suit against Gootee’s insurer, ACE American Insurance Company, for almost $3.3 million for damage to the exterior of the hotel.
The parties agreed that the contract was governed by a form document known as the General Conditions of the Contract for Construction (General Conditions). The General Conditions is a document that contains amendments that the parties negotiated themselves – the Court acknowledges that these amendments are clearly marked in the document.

Both parties also agreed that WH Holdings was only covered under the policy which ACE issued to Gootee if, and only if, WH Holdings qualified as an insured party under the policy. Thus the entire case rested on whether or not Gootee was “contractually obligated… to insure WH Holdings such that it became an insured on the ACE policy.”

To reach its decision, the District Court looked at two clauses of the contract, Subsections 11.4.1 and 11.1.5(g). The parties distinctly amended a portion of Subsection 11.4.1. to seemingly place the responsibility of purchasing property insurance on Gootee. The District Court even acknowledged that if 11.4.1 stood alone, ACE would have no basis to contest WH Holdings claim. However, the District Court held that a separate subsection, 11.1.5(g), located in a different portion of the contract, changed the meaning of 11.4.1 by “unambiguously… obligating WH Holdings to carry the insurance ‘when the construction is an addition or a renovation.'”
The district court granted ACE’s motion for summary judgment and concluded that WH Holdings was not an insured party under the contract and Gootee had no responsibility to insure WH Holdings.

The 5th Circuit disagreed with the District Court’s analysis stating that while the district court “relied entirely on subsection 11.1.5(g) in finding the contract unambiguous… subsection 11.1.5(g) is not as ‘crystal clear’ as the district court thought it to be.” The Court goes on to point out that 11.1.5(g) appeared in an entirely different portion of the contract than 11.4.1. Subsection 11.1.5(g) appeared in a section of the contract covering “Contractor’s Liability Insurance” while 11.4.1 appeared in a section entitled “Property Insurance.” The Court found that 11.1.5(g) is limited in scope by a preceding clause and therefore does not modify 11.4.1, and to read it any other way would be ignoring this express limit. The 5th Circuit finally stated that it simply cannot agree with Gootee’s assertion and the District Court’s conclusion that the contract language unambiguously obligated WH Holdings to purchase property insurance.

The 5th Circuit also disagreed with WH Holdings argument that it was in fact Gootee who was “unambiguously required… to purchase the property insurance” since WH Holdings was unable to persuasively argue their interpretation. Stating that there were “difficulties with each party’s contention that the contract unambiguously supports its position,” the 5th Circuit vacated the District Court’s judgment and remanded the case back to the District Court. Finally, due to the ambiguous nature of the contract, the 5th Circuit also ordered the District Court to examine outside evidence brought by both parties regarding the meaning of the contract and to examine how both parties had performed the contract prior to the lawsuit being brought.

Contracts can be extremely important and very complicated particularly when dealing with insurance issues. Hiring the proper attorney is very important to ensure that all documents relevant are maintained, and provided, from start to finish, as well as to navigate any complicated appeals that may arise.

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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 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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