Articles Posted in Road Home

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? –

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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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.

In insurance, an assignment is the transfer of legal rights under an insurance policy to another party. The legality of assignments became a major issue in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. During this period, the federal government, in an effort to aid rebuilding efforts, issued money through the Road Home program to homeowners who held underinsured properties. In exchange, these homeowners were required to assign their rights to insurance claims under their policies to the the state of Louisiana. The purpose of this assignment was to prevent homeowners from fraudulently receiving duplicate payments. However, the program incentivized insurance companies to estimate damages too low, which in turn forced homeowners to take the higher amount offered through the Road Home program.

The shortfall created within the Road Home program forced the state of Louisiana to bring suit against insurance companies through the policy rights assigned to the state by homeowners. In essence, the state sought to recoup actual insurance claim damages that the homeowners were rightfully owed had they not opted into the Road Home program. Though most, if not all, of the homeowner insurance policy contracts contained an anti-assignment clause, the state maintained that it had the right to post-loss assignment. Therefore, it is critical to distinguish between a pre-loss assignment and a post-loss assignment.

A pre-loss assignment occurs when one transfers a legal right under an insurance policy to another before the injury or loss occurs. An example of a type of pre-loss assignment is found in cases when life insurance is assigned to a bank as collateral for a loan. Here, the assignment has occurred before the loss, in this case the death of the original policy holder, and any benefits that accrue at the time of death are used to repay the bank first. These types of assignments typically require consent from the insurer, but are usually barred by anti-assignment clauses.

A post-loss assignment, on the other hand, is the transfer of a legal right under an insurance policy to another party after the injury or loss occurs. Post-loss assignments frequently give the third party transferee the ability to file a claim against the insurance company for any loss accrued by the original policy holder. Many insurance companies try to block such assignments through broad anti-assignment clauses found in policy contracts. Such clauses were found in most Katrina and Rita policies, and insurance companies pointed to these sections in an attempt to avoid paying actual damage costs homeowners thought they rightfully assigned to the state.

While national jurisprudence holds that pre-loss anti-assignment clauses are valid in favor of contract law and public policy, anti-assignment clauses related to post-loss assignments are held to be invalid. The reasoning behind this difference primarily lies with public policy considerations. A pre-loss assignment, for example, may increase the risk beyond the point that the insurance company had originally contracted for and with a party the insurance company had not originally contracted with. A post-loss assignment, on the other hand, simply assigns an accrued right to payment after a loss has already occurred. There is no change in risk as the loss has already occurred, and since payment is to be made it matters none to whom the payment is made.
The Supreme Court of Louisiana holds that such public policy concerns are better suited for the legislature. However, the Court does state that clauses prohibiting post-loss assignment must be written in clear and unambiguous language. If the language in the policy contract is unclear, then, in accordance with laws regarding contracts of adhesion, the language will be construed against the insurance company and in favor of the insured. If you have entered into a contract with an insurance company and are looking to assign your rights under the policy to a third party, turn to the language in the contract itself. Though there is not specific set of words or test used to determine “clear and unambiguous,” your own judgment is a good starting point in determining whether or not you have the right to assignment.

Though your own judgment is an excellent place to start, insurance law is very complicated and is best suited for a practicing attorney.

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Insurance policies routinely include provisions that are intended to limit the scope of the insurer’s coverage in the event of a claim by the policyholder. For instance, most homeowner’s insurance policies exclude coverage for fire damage that results from the policyholder’s deliberate arson. Commercial premises insurance policies, which commonly also include coverage for loss of business income, can carry similar limitations. The recent case of Berk-Cohen Associates, L.L.C. v. Landmark American Insurance Company in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit provides an instructive example of how insurance policies are “construed using the general rules of interpretation of contracts” by the courts.

Berk-Cohen Associates, L.L.C., as the owner of the Forest Isle Apartments in New Orleans, maintained an insurance policy to cover the complex with the Landmark American Insurance Company. The policy covered property damage but specifically did not cover losses at Forest Isle “caused directly or indirectly by Flood.” In the case of a covered cause of loss, such as wind damage or fire, the policy insured Berk-Cohen against both the property damage and the resulting lost business income. However, the scope of the income protection excluded any income that would have been earned directly as a consequence of any “favorable business conditions caused by the impact of the Covered Cause of Loss on customers or on other businesses.” In other words, Berk-Cohen could not profit by a widespread calamity that was also the source of a property damage claims. Forest Isle suffered a series of misfortunes, including a tornado, a vehicle strike, and–most significant–damage from Hurricane Katrina. Following the hurricane, Landmark compensated Berk-Cohen for damages caused by wind but not flood. Concerning Berk-Cohen’s claim for lost business income, Landmark argued that it was not responsible for the increased rents that resulted from the extensive flooding around the city because flood damage was excluded from the policy. Accordingly, Landmark “declined to increase its calculation of lost business income to the extent that any foregone income arose from flooding.” Berk-Cohen initiated litigation and, following a bench trial, the district court held that, notwithstanding the flood damage exclusion in the policy, Landmark should have considered the business conditions attributable to flooding in other buildings when computing the business income that Berk-Cohen lost as a result of the wind damage to Forest Isle. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s opinion. It noted that the “Covered Cause of Loss” that gave rise to Berk-Choen’s property damage claim was wind. Consequently, the policy language prohibited Berk-Cohen from recovering for lost business income as a result of wind damage suffered by customers or other competing businesses. But, “any increase in customers’ demand or reduction in competitors’ supply due to flooding at other properties is a permissible factor in calculating lost business income.” (Emphasis supplied.) The court refused to permit Landmark to exclude coverage for flood damage by the policy language while at the same time invoking the same source of damage to reduce Berk-Cohen’s business income recovery. To do so would “extend[] the flood exclusion beyond its function,” since the policy specifically permits the income calculation to consider “favorable business conditions.” Accordingly, the court “decline[d] to use a limitation on coverage”–that is, flooding–“to alter the calculation of damages for a covered loss”–the lost income. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the “policy … excludes coverage for flood damages at the Forest Isle property. The flood exclusion does not, however, prevent Berk-Cohen from recovering lost business income due to the favorable business conditions arising from flood damage to other buildings.”

This case demonstrates that applying the “normal cannons of contract interpretation” can work to the benefit of the insured. As with any contract, the insurance company is bound by the plain meaning of the policy language, even if it means that excluding coverage for one claim will open the door to liability for another. The lesson here is that a knowledgeable and experienced attorney is invaluable to anyone who is involved in a dispute over insurance coverage.

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As previously discussed in Part I, the case of Charles Ebinger, et ux. v. Venus Construction Corporation, et al. focuses on the time period in which a claim for damages can be brought against a contractor and the time period in which a contractor may bring an indemnifying action against a subcontractor. This Part, however, focuses on the Louisiana Supreme Court’s reasoning as to how it interpreted the applicable statute of limitations.

The Ebingers moved into their newly built home in April of 1997. On October 9, 2003, the Ebingers filed suit against Venus Construction alleging defects in the home’s foundation had caused cracks in the drywall, tile, brick walls, and floor. Venus Construction filed its indemnity claim on September 22, 2006 against the engineer and subcontractor that supplied the foundation.

First the Court determined when the cause of action arose. The Court determined that “regardless of the length of the peremptive period, it [the peremptive period] began when the owners took possession of the house or filed an acceptance of the work.” In this case, a certificate of occupancy issued on April 22, 1997, and therefore, that is when the peremptive period began. At the time the Ebingers moved into their home, the original statute was in place and thus the Ebingers would have ten (10) years to file a claim.

Second, the Louisiana Supreme Court looked at the language of the statutes to determine whether the superseding statutes were written to act retroactively or have prospective application. Though the peremptive period was ten years at the time the statute of limitations began to run, the legislature amended the governing statute in 1999, substituting ‘seven’ for ‘ten’ years as the peremptive period. Further, this Act stated “the provisions of this Act shall have prospective application only and shall apply to contracts entered into on or after the effective date of this Act.” Thus, at this time, the Ebingers would still have a valid claim through the original ten year peremptive period because the amended statute had only prospective applicability, not retroactive applicability, as specifically written in the Act by the legislature. Next, the Court looked at the second revision of the Act in 2003 which substitute ‘five’ for ‘seven’ years and did not maintain the ‘prospective application’ language. The Court states that the legislature’s actions in drafting a law are knowing and intentional, and thus, if the legislature meant for the ‘prospective application’ language to continue, then the legislature would have included it in the Act. However, because the legislature did not, the Court’s interpretation is that the 2003 Amendment supersedes the original statute and makes the peremptive period five years, even for those causes of action that arose back when the ten and seven year periods were applicable.

Third, the Court examines Constitutional rights to Due Process and determines that the statute of limitations is a procedural law and as long as it does not disturb a vested legal right, a right that at the moment may be expressed, then the statute of limitations (peremptive period) may be applied retroactively. In the end, the Ebingers’ claim is not perempted even though it was filed two months after the 2003 Amendment because the Ebingers’ right to sue had vested the moment they attained the certificate of occupancy. However, as for Venus Construction, “the mere expectancy of a future benefit,” for Venus Construction in this case the right to file a claim for indemnification, “does not constitute a vested right.” Therefore, Venus Construction’s right to file a claim for indemnification did not vest until a judgment was entered against Venus Construction, and thus the peremptive period has run for Venus Construction to file a claim for indemnification against the subcontractor.

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