Articles Posted in Unfair Business Practices

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In an appeal filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, from the Western District of Louisiana, the Court affirmed a district court verdict ruling in favor for the IRS. The Plaintiff, S.P. Lewis was ordered to pay monthly installments to the government to pay for taxes withheld from employee’s wages while S.P Davis and three other people were equal owners of the Winward Institute, Winward Heath Care Center, and Mynex. These three entities provide medical services to Louisiana patients. In 1997, these owners became aware that the companies were not paying enough federal payroll taxes. The owners asked the vice president of finance, Samuel Stevens, to negotiate with the IRS but the debt was never corrected.

In 2002, The IRS caught up with the companies and issued assessments against the owners for unpaid payroll taxes. Davis paid what he felt was his portion of the debt and then filed for a refund with the IRS. His claim was denied. In District Court, the government won the argument that the owners and Stevens were responsible people who had the opportunity to cure the dabt long ago. Because the owners and Stevens all had knowledge of the debt, and the opportunity to address the situation prior to suit, the owners and Stevers were considered equally responsible.

The government typically garnishes debtor’s wages in this situation. However, if the person in debt recieves income not exempt from taxes, the district court may order the person in debt to make payments instead of garnishing wages. When the Court established monthly payments against all counter-defendants, only Davis refused to pay. Davis did not want to pay the amount per month ordered by the government. Davis argued that the government was making him pay far too much each month. He argued the government was determining the monthly amount on a period in time when Davis had a much higher income. Davis also argued that the court had not properly considered his personal circumstances including the costs associated with earning his self-employment income.

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Louisiana has a Direct Action Statute that allows injured third parties to sue an insurance company directly when the insurance company’s insured causes an injury. For example, if you are involved an automobile accident where you are not at fault, you can sue the at-fault driver’s insurance company directly instead of suing the at-fault driver themselves. The Direct Action Statute is beneficial because it gives injured third parties access to the entity that will actually pay compensation for the injuries. It can be especially helpful where the insured fails to file a claim with their insurance company themselves. However, the injured third-party’s ability to sue the insurance company directly is limited by the insurance contract between the insurance company and the insured.

Despite the fact that the insurance contract is between the insurance company and the insured, an injured third party must still comply with most of the terms of the contract. This overarching rule applies specifically to whether the policy covers the insured and whether the policy covers a particular event. The insurance company will ask: Did this person have coverage when this accident happened? and Does this policy cover this type of event? For example, in insurance contracts limited to specific times, the insurance company will not cover a claim that occurred outside the time frame of the contract, regardless of who brings the claim. In a related example, automobile coverage that is limited to only certain vehicles will cover only those vehicles, regardless of who brings the claim. That is, the injured third party can have no greater rights than the insured would have had if he or she brought the complain themselves.

In a United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case, the court determined that specific requirements of the contract also extend to injured third parties. That case involved a “claims-made-and-reported” policy. That type of policy not only requires that a claim arise within the policy period, but also that the insured (or another party under the Direct Action Statute) had to have reported the claim within the policy period. This type of notice requirement helps insurance companies avoid claims that are reported years after they happen; instead, this policy requires notice within a certain amount of time.

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When you signed up for automobile insurance, you might have noticed that many states now require automobile insurance agencies to include some sort of uninsured motorist (“UM”) clause in your insurance agreement. Oftentimes, the only way to get out of including this in your coverage, and therefore having to pay a higher premium, is by explicitly rejecting this additional coverage. How exactly do you reject this additional coverage, though? While this might seem like an easy question, most states, including the state of Louisiana, require very specific requirements to be met in order for rejection of UM coverage to be proper.

In the State of Louisiana, that is exactly the case: In order to get out of paying a higher premium for this uninsured motorist coverage, the insured has to explicitly reject that coverage. And the state of Louisiana has many rules with regard to how to properly complete this task.

In order for an uninsured motorist rejection to be considered proper, Louisiana courts have found six tasks that must be completed by the insured. In Duncan v. U.S.A.A Ins. Co., 06-0363 (La. 11/29/06), 950 So. 2d 544, the court outlines these six tasks as follows:

1) initialing the selection or rejection of coverage chosen;
2) if limits lower than the policy limits are chosen (available in options 2 and 4), then filling in the amount of coverage selected for each person and each accident;
3) printing the name of the named insured or legal representative;
4) signing the name of the named insured or legal representative;
5) filling in the policy number; and
6) filling in the date.

While the Court in Duncan did not explicitly deal with the timing of these tasks, a couple years later, the Court in Gray v. American National Propery & Cas. Co., 07-1670 (La. 2/26/08), 977 So. 2d 839, discussed the requisite timing in which the above tasks need to be completed. According to the Court in Gray, all six of these tasks have to be completed before the UM selection form is signed by the insured. The Court also went on to say that the completion of these tasks has to be done in a manner showing that the insured’s signature signifies that he or she agrees with all of the information that is contained in the insurance form. While the Court said that the tasks have to be completed before the UM selection form is signed by the insured, that was not the most important part of the Court’s findings. Rather, the most important part of the Court’s holding was that the insured’s signature needs to signify agreement with all that is contained in the form.

In the recent case decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court, Edward Morrison v. U.S.A.A Casualty Ins. Co., No. 2012-CC-2334, the Court really focused on the fact that the most important part of the timing of the UM selection form is that the insured’s signature is affirming agreement to all the clauses contained therein. This case primarily deals with task #1 listed above which requires that an individual properly initial the selection or rejection of coverage chosen in order for UM rejection to be considered proper.

In this case, the insured’s representative clearly meant to reject UM coverage but accidentally did not initial the line that stated such in the agreement form. When the insurer received the form, he or she noticed that the form was incomplete and sent it back to the insured’s representative. At that time, the representative initialed the proper line rejecting UM coverage and returned the form to the insurer. This clearly showed that the insured agreed with all of the clauses and various information contained in the form. Furthermore, all of this was completed before the relevant accident, so the court held the UM rejection valid.

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In a previous blog post, we discussed how exactly uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM) benefits can be rejected in Louisiana. While that post went through some of the legal technicalities involved in rejecting UM coverage, it did not discuss in depth some of the scenarios in which coverage might be rejected and how the court might actually rule despite those legal technicalities.

This blog post will focus on specific cases and scenarios in which, despite not following every legally prescribed requirement under Louisiana law, the court has decided that coverage was actually properly rejected or limited. Some of these examples involve just a word or two out of place, others involve completely leaving off pertinent information. But all of the below examples make it clear that the parties’ intents are more important that perfectly following the letter of the law.

The first example deals with a case involving an automobile accident. In that case, the individual driving the car involved in the accident was driving one of his employer’s vehicles. So the question was whether or not the employer’s insurance company, General Insurance Company of America (GICA), had properly produced a valid and enforceable uninsured/underinsured motorist rejection form, as required by the commissioner of insurance. Whether or not this UM rejection form had been properly completed would mean the difference between $100,000.00 and $1,000,000.00 available under the policy. GICA contended that it had filled the form out properly and that coverage should be $100,000.00, and the individual driving the car claimed the opposite and that coverage should be in the amount of $1,000,000.00.

In that case, the plaintiff argued that the form did not fulfill all requirements as specified by Louisiana statute for proper uninsured/underinsured motorist rejection. Specifically, the form that was signed had an improper title. Despite the fact that the form did not have the exact proper title, the court decided that the form was still valid and enforceable, and therefore, UM rejection was properly executed. The governing factor in the case was whether or not GICA’s intent was clear from the UM rejection form. Because the intent was clear, despite the improper title, rejection was still proper.

Another example from the Louisiana court system involved a UM rejection form that not only had the title wrong, but also had several other deviations. Despite these errors, the uninsured/underinsured motorist rejection was still deemed proper because the form was clear about the limitation of the coverage. From the form, it was obvious that the party meant to limit UM motorist coverage.

Yet another case dealt with a form that was missing the insurance company name and policy number. Both of those pieces of information are technically required by law in order for the UM rejection to be valid. However, the court in that case ruled that such omissions will not invalidate an otherwise valid form when it is clear that the intent was to reject UM coverage. The technical errors had little weight on the court’s decision because the overall intent of the parties was clearly stated in the signed document.

In a Louisiana Supreme Court case, a form did not properly contain the printed name of the legal representative of the corporate insured. However, once again, despite this technical error, the Court determined that the uninsured/underinsured motorist rejection form would not be considered invalid because of that small error because the overall intent of the parties was clear from the form.

From these examples, it is clear that the courts will not always strictly apply the stated law and that sometimes the overall intent of the parties is more important and carries more weight in determining the validity of a UM rejection form.

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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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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.

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Regardless of your level of legal training, we’re all guilty of ignoring the fine print but insurance coverage is often determined by the placement of an unnoticed word or punctuation mark in the language of the policy. Under Louisiana law, the insured bears the burden of proving that an incident falls within the terms of the policy. In contrast, an insurer seeking to avoid coverage through a motion for summary judgment bears the burden of proving that a provision or exclusion precludes coverage. Courts treat insurance policies like other contracts and therefore strive to interpret each term according to its true meaning. As straightforward as it sounds, a contract’s true meaning is always disputed even if on its face the language appears clear. This requires courts to hear creative arguments on the meaning of particular terms buried in the policy.

On June 8, 2010, in an unfortunate incident at the Library Lounge in Monroe, McKenzie A. Hudson (Mr. Hudson) was approached by an intoxicated patron and struck in the head. In December 2010, Mr. Hudson died from severe brain injuries allegedly suffered during the attack. Mr. Hudson’s mother filed a wrongful death/survival suit against several defendants including the entity that owned the bar as well as its principals. Several weeks later Ms. Hudson added First Financial Insurance Company (FFIC), insurer of the bar.

Recognizing the language of the bar’s insurance policy, Ms. Hudson admitted that her son’s assailant did not intend or expect her son’s death but instead it resulted when he lost consciousness, fell to the pavement, and fractured his skull. The particular provision at issue in the policy read that it did not provide coverage for assault, battery, or other physical altercation. The policy defined assault in part as “a willful attempt or threat to inflict injury upon another” and battery as “wrongful physical contact with a person without his or her consent that entails some injury or offensive touching.”

Ms. Hudson differentiated between the FFIC’s old policy language which was ambiguous as to “extraordinary” injuries and its current policy which included amendments intended to broaden and clarify exclusions. Ms. Hudson specifically pointed to the removal of an “or” between the assault and battery provisions which had the effect of causing the provisions to be read together. This eliminated coverage for all “intended” or “expected” injuries. Since her son was not intentionally killed or expected to die she argued coverage should be provided. In response, FFIC submitted numerous cases where similar assault and battery exclusions were upheld.

Like the trial court, the court of appeals granted summary judgment in favor of FFIC for several reasons. First, the court reviewed the cases submitted by the FFIC and concluded that the “overwhelming” majority of insurers were dismissed from suits arising from injury or death after an assault or battery. Furthermore, the court pointed to a similar case where it was determined that the presence of an “and” or “or” did not necessarily indicate that the provisions should or should not be read together. The court concluded that the provisions were clear in their language and that there was no question Mr. Hudson was the victim of battery. Therefore, the policy excluded insurance coverage for his death.

Although the courts demonstrate a reluctance to rule against the insurance companies in policy exclusion cases this does not mean a particular result is guaranteed. The terms of each insurance policy varies and requires careful review of its language before any legal action is taken.

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Defendant Robert Turnage was in an accident with Plaintiffs Heather and Nicholas Tate on Memorial Day 2011 on Louisiana Highway 28 East, in Pineville. Tate attempted to pull out of a McDonald’s parking lot when she was struck my Turnage’s vehicle. Tate filed a petition for damages and the trial court found Tate to be 10% liable and Turnage to be 90% liable, awarding general, special and property damages to Heather Tate, along with general and special damages to her son Nicholas. Turnage appealed this judgment.

Turnage brought up 4 issues in his appeal: 1. The Plaintiff was essentially free from fault and met the heightened burden of proof imposed upon left-turning motorists from private driveway; 2. The Plaintiff preempted the Defendant’s right-of-way, although the accident did not occur at an intersection; That Defendant was 90% at fault, although the Court found credible his testimony that he did not motion to the Plaintiff that the way was clear for her to cross the highway; 4. The Plaintiff was 10% at fault in causing the Accident.

The standard of review for the appellate court is based on precedent, or previous case law, that sets for the amount of deference that the appellate court has in ruling the trial court’s initial decision. The appellate court is bound by the precedent that states:

“a court of appeal may not set aside a trial court’s finding of fact in the absence of manifest error or unless it is clearly wrong…the court of appeal may not reverse even though convinced that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence differently.”

The appellate court in this case has a higher standard of review in that they cannot reverse the decision based on small differences they perceived in the facts that the trial court ruled on, but can only rule differently if the original fact finder ruled in error or the ruling is completely wrong.

Turnage testified that he left a “gap” while sitting at a red light outside of the McDonald’s that Tate was pulling out of. Tate claimed that Turnage waved her forward to make the left turn she was waiting to make out of the private parking lot, but Turnage denies this, which the trial court found to be irrelevant. Louisiana Revised Statute 32:104(A) requires that a turning vehicle must not enter the roadway “unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety” and that La.R.S. 32:124 requires that a motorist entering a highway from a private road or driveway “yield the right of way to all approaching vehicles so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.” Although Tate is held to this standard, as soon as Turnage left the gap for Tate to pull out he no longer was in favor and he needed to exercise with caution by looking both way, which he states he failed to do. The appellate court found no error in the trial court ruling and that the fact that Tate almost completed the left hand turn before being hit only makes it more evident that Turnage proceeded unlawfully.

The appellate court disagreed with Turnage’s arguments that Tate failed to meet the burden of extreme care, that the trial court relied on Tate’s testimony that Turnage signaled her to pull through, and that the trial court abused its discretion in saying that Turnage was 90% at fault. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling and all costs of appeal were assessed to Robert Turnage and Southern Casualty Insurance Co.

If you ever experience a similar situation or are involved in a car accident contact the Berniard Law Firm.

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In April 2010, an offshore drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers died and crude oil from the well spilled into the Gulf for months after the accident. The result was a mass of litigation involving multiple defendants. In order to deal with the extensive facts and individuals involved in this case, like many other cases, the parties can appeal just one issue of the case if the lower court denies or grants a judgment on that particular issue.

Normally, a decision must be a final one in order to be appealed. That generally means that the case has concluded and the lower court has rendered a judgment. That way, the appeals court considers all of the facts involved, but can still allow the lower court to do most of the fact analysis. However, there are some occasions where an appeal on just one issue is allowed. This is known as an interlocutory appeal, and it falls under the collateral order doctrine. The collateral order doctrine assumes that some decisions are “final in effect although they do not dispose of the litigation.”

In order to use the collateral order doctrine, the lower court must have 1) conclusively determined the disputed question, 2) resolved an important issue that is completely separate from the final decision in the case, and 3) the issue must also be effectively unreviewable on appeal in a final judgment. “Effectively unreviewable” means that the court of appeals will have no way to review the decision of the lower court once the lower court makes a decision on this particular issue. Generally, if the decision could be appealed in some other way than the interlocutory appeal, then the court will not use the interlocutory appeal.

In the oil spill case, parties assumed that one worker in particular held a great deal of information because he was the BP Well Site Leader on duty aboard the rig at the time of the accident. However, the Site Leader had an undisclosed medical condition that prohibited him from testifying or answering written questions. The Site Leader explained his medical condition to the judge on two separate occasions, but did not disclose the information to the parties.

Since the parties believed that he was such a valuable witness, they really wanted to obtain information from him. As such, another judge ordered an independent doctor to examine him and ordered the Site Leader to produce his medical records to the independent doctor. The Site Leader protested because he was concerned about sharing his personal information. This order is a discovery decision, and discovery decisions are appealable after the final decision of the court based on the use of inadmissible evidence.

One of the Site Leader’s major arguments, however, was that releasing his personal medical information would cause a great deal of harm to him personally, and there is no method on appeal to reverse that type of harm. Nonetheless, the court determined that district courts can “burden litigants in ways that are only imperfectly reparable by appellate reversal of the final district court judgment.” Therefore, even though there may be harm that cannot be reversed for the Site Leader, the court will still allow the medical information to come in because the final verdict could change on appeal if the information is removed later. To use another example, the court explains that even if the information is privileged, that does not make it appropriate for an interlocutory appeal.

The court only briefly considered the rights of the Site Leader and his concern about protecting his personal information. In that discussion, they explain that they weighed the costs of sharing his information with the benefits of having his testimony at trial and determined that the benefits outweighed the costs.

As result, the court determined that it could not use the collateral order doctrine and that the interlocutory appeal was inappropriate. Therefore, the court dismissed the appeal and allowed the bulk of the case to continue in the lower court.

Civil procedure issues can be a delicate balance between protecting the case and protecting the individuals involved in the case.

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