Articles Posted in Workplace Accidents

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La. R.S. 30:29 (“Act 312”) was in enacted in 2006 and became effective in June of that year. Act 312 provides a procedure for the remediation of oil field sites as well as oil exploration and production sites. Generally, remediation is “the action of remedying something, in particular of reversing or stopping environmental change.” Before the Louisiana legislature enacted Act 312, most remediation requirements were through private party contracts; therefore, Act 312 did not change the normal trial procedures established by the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently discussed Act 312 at length, explaining what it did change, in a case involving the Vermilion Parish School Board. The Court explained that Act 312 was enacted because of serious concerns with the state of the land and ground water after an area was used for oil exploration and production. Parties would use the land and ground water under a mineral lease for several years, and leave the property in terrible shape by the time that they were done. Mineral leases allow the parties to contract for only the minerals or the potential oil that is located on that property. The party with the mineral lease, then, does not rent the entire property, but just the ability to find minerals or oil within or upon that property.

Before Act 312, parties could still sue if one party left the land in terrible shape. Occasionally, however, it does not make sense economically to force a party to fix the land they damaged. Instead, the renting party would have to give the “landlord” the difference between the value of the land when they received it and the value of the land when it was returned after the lease, under a tort law theory. However, the person who owned the land, the “landlord,” was not required to use the funds to fix damage done to the land. As a result, property that had serious environmental problems often went without remediation because the landlord was not required to fix it. This creates health and safety concerns for the general public.

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In January, the Louisiana Supreme Court considered an appeal from the Vermilion Parish School Board. The appeal centered on environmental damage to land that was subject to a mineral lease. The mineral lease allowed those leasing the land to look for and remove any mineral, including oil, that they found on the land. However, once they did this, they left the land in a state that was environmentally hazardous.

Louisiana has special procedures for dealing with restoring land so that we do not harm the environment, specifically when removing oil. The remediation of the land, this restoring process, was one of the major issues in the Vermilion Parish case. The defendants included Union Oil Company of California, Union Exploration Partners, Carrollton Resources, LLC, Chevron USA, Inc., and Chevron Midcontinent, L.P.

The Court faced two major issues in this case. The first was whether the parties could receive damages in excess of the amount it would take to restore the property, thereby correcting the environmental damage. The Court determined that the language of the legislation (La. R.S. 30:29) was clear and that the parties could receive a larger amount.

Under Louisiana law, when a case arises where a party is required to correct an environmental wrong, the funds are deposited into the court’s registry. The court will then disperse the funds to repair the land. This is a relatively new development because this act was put into effect in 2006. The legislature was concerned that parties who received funds to help correct the damage done to their land would not use it for that purpose if they were not so required. Leaving property that is damaged could create serious issues for the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding population.

The legislation focuses on the role of the fact finder in determining whether there was environmental damage, and how much that environmental damage will cost to fix. As such, the court determined that the case should continue so that the fact finder could make those determinations.

The second issue was whether Chevron should be dismissed from the case. According to the facts, Union Oil had the mineral lease first, but Chevron subsequently acquired Union Oil and all of their assets, including the lease. As such, Chevron became responsible for any environmental damage that Union Oil may have caused. Chevron admitted responsibility initially, but then denied that they should be legally responsible later.

Chevron explained that while Chevron Corp. owns both Chevron USA and Union Oil Company of California, the two sections do not overlap. That is, Union Oil had $18 billion in assets, and should they be found liable for environmental damage, the amount that they will pay will come from their assets and not Chevron’s. Chevron explained that those assets were never transferred out of Union Oil, so Union Oil remained somewhat independent even after Chevron acquired them.

Therefore, Chevron argued that Chevron USA should be removed from the case so that those assets are not adversely affected. Nonetheless, Frank Soler, the senior liaison in the subsidiary governance unit of the corporate governance department for Chevron Corp. admitted that Union Oil does not have any employees and there may be service agreements between the two sections for day-to-day activities.

The Plaintiffs in the case were only allowed to discover a very limited amount of information from Chevron regarding this case. The court restricted the information until they determined whether or not Chevron should remain in the case a defendant. As such, many facts remained unknown regarding the relationship between Chevron and Union Oil. Therefore, the court determined that Plaintiffs should be allowed to gather more information and the case should continue.

Both of these issues failed the summary judgment test. The test is whether there is an absence of material facts in the case. If there is such an absence, then the court will only determine the questions of law and one side will receive a summary judgment. In this case, however, the court determined that there may be facts in dispute because they did not have enough information; therefore, the case continued.

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In Louisiana, a merchant’s duty to keep the premises safe for its customers is narrowly defined by the law. La. R.S. 9:2800.6 specifically deals with merchants and requires the injured party to prove:

(1) The condition presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the claimant and that risk of harm was reasonably foreseeable.

(2) The merchant either created or had actual or constructive notice of the condition which caused the damage, prior to the occurrence.

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An insurance company found itself on the defending side of a civil claim but not for the reason one might expect. Larry Modicue, a Louisiana man weighing 404 pounds, filed a claim against State Farm Casualty & Fire Insurance and its representative Rose Kennedy when the chair Ms. Kennedy offered him collapsed under his weight. The Fourth Judicial District Court granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and the Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit affirmed.

Mr. Modicue alleged that the incident in which his chair collapsed was an example of res ipsa loquitor. This common law phenomenon is found when a court deems that a particular incident or accident is the type that does not occur without negligence on behalf of some actor. Res ipsa loquitor means “the thing speaks for itself” in Latin and is a way for a plaintiff to prove the duty and breach prongs of a negligence case. As a review, a prima facie negligence case requires four essential elements: duty, breach, causation and harm. A plaintiff must prove each of these elements in order for a case to proceed to the trier of fact, whether judge or jury.

The appellate court reviewed the granting of a summary judgment de novo meaning that the appellate court could consider all things that the trial court could have considered in rendering its decision. The appellate court reviewed Louisiana C.C. art. 2317.1 in determining the outcome of this case. This statute places liability on the owner or custodian of a thing when that person knew or should have known through the exercise of reasonable care that a particular condition existed when it is determined that the condition caused damage to a plaintiff and the custodian or owner could have remedied the condition with reasonable care. Liability attaches if that care was not exercised. This statute is a reflection of traditional negligence principles. If a party has exclusive control over an object it is responsible for conditions in that object that cause harm to others. It is interesting to note that this statute goes on to specifically note that nothing in it should be construed to prevent a court from applying res ipsa loquitor. The appellate court found that Ms. Kennedy had no reason to know that this particular chair would give out under Mr. Modicue’s weight since it had held him without incident on a previous occasion.

The Court of Appeal went on to dismiss the plaintiff’s allegation that res ipsa loquitor applied to this situation. The court noted that Harper v. Advantage Gaming, 880 So. 2d 948 clarifies the situations in which res ipsa loquitor applies. That case required a court to find unusual circumstances such that, in the absence of other evidence, there was an inference of negligence on the part of the defendant. In conjunction with this the defendant must have had exclusive control over the object that caused the injury. These circumstances must lead to the finding that the only reasonable conclusion is that the defendant breached a duty to the plaintiff and that this was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

The court in this case found that due to Mr. Modicue’s weight, there was more than one potential explanation for the chair’s failure. The court went on to explain that Mr. Modicue had not provided enough evidence to get the issue of the defendants’ negligence to the jury. As such, the defendants were entitled to a summary judgment as a matter of law. Mr. Modicue’s reliance on res ipsa loquitor caused his negligence claim to fail. Had he offered evidence of all four elements of negligence, it is possible that he would have succeeded, though it is unclear if this evidence existed.

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In 2008, three men were passengers on a chartered fishing boat that collided with a utility boat. The fishing boat’s insurance company was St. Paul Fire and the utility boat’s insurance company was Steadfast. Harvest Oil owned the utility boat. Normally, the insurance companies would fight about who was at fault and may eventually make it to court. However, this case was more complicated because the men in the fishing boat did not own the boat, and the owner of the utility boat filed for bankruptcy shortly after the passengers drug them into the lawsuit as a third party. The issue of waiver of a coverage defense while the insured is in a bankruptcy proceeding is one that has not been considered in Louisiana previously.

Harvest received a letter from their insurance company shortly the parties filed suit. The letter explained that the insurance company was “reserving their rights,” but it was signed by Zurich American Insurance Company, Harvest’s automotive insurance provider. Zurich North America owned both Steadfast and Zurich American Insurance Company, and Harvest had insurance policies with both of these carriers. Despite the fact that Zurich American Insurance Company signed the letter, the Steadfast policy was mentioned by name and policy number in the letter. In fact, the letter quoted a portion of the Steadfast policy that excluded watercrafts such as the one that was involved in the accident in 2008. The letter explained that the insurance company would be investigating the case, but reserved all of its rights in action. Essentially, when an insurance company reserves its rights, it means that wants the option of asserting a defense that may not be in the insured interests.

When the passengers sued the insurance company their initial answer did not mention that Steadfast had a watercraft exclusion. When the passengers asked to review the relevant insurance policies, Steadfast gave them copies of their standard primary and umbrella policies. Three separate insurance claims agents thought that Harvest’s claim would be covered because they overlooked the watercraft exclusion. Finally, in 2011, an insurance adjustor finally noticed the exclusion. As a result, Steadfast changed their defenses and asserted that they would not cover Harvest’s claim because of the watercraft exclusion. Steadfast also, understandably, changed their attorneys shortly after this discovery.

The passengers argued that Steadfast could not assert this defense so late in the litigation. They argued that Steadfast waived their coverage defense by proceeding with the lawsuit, and even if they did not waive the defense, they did not assert that right to begin with. The court in this case explained that the insurance company needed to have reserved their right to use this defense at the beginning of the litigation, so they analyzed the initial letter that Harvest received at the beginning of the lawsuit.

The passengers argued that Steadfast did not reserve its rights through the letter because the letter was very confusing. It was signed by another insurance company and confused the insured. The insured thought that Zurich, their automotive insurance company, was asserting its rights; not that Steadfast was asserting its rights. In addition, the letter only referred to investigation and did not mention anything relating to a defense.

Generally, if the insurance company assumes a defense of the insured without first reserving its rights, that constitutes a waiver. However, the court found that Steadfast did reserve its rights in the letter sent to Harvest. The court points out that the letter specifically referred to the policy with Steadfast and quotes language from it. The fact that the insured did not read the letter carefully, the court concluded, should not inhibit Steadfast from reserving its rights. Since Louisiana does not require technical language to reserve its rights to a defense, the insurance company was not required to describe which rights in particular they were reserving.

However, the insurance company can still waive their rights even where they have reserved their rights. The court pointed out that under Louisiana law, an insurance company can waive any provision of an insurance contract, even if that waiver has the effect of extending coverage. Waiver requires misleading conduct on the part of the insurer and a prejudice to the insured.

Louisiana law requires that the insurance company induce their insured to belief that they were waiving their rights. In this case, although Steadfast mistakenly thought that Harvest was covered, they did not communicate that mistake to Harvest. Steadfast did not act with the intention of misleading their insured; they acted because of a mistake regarding coverage, so Steadfast did not deliberately mislead Harvest.

Waiver also requires that the insured be harmed because of the misleading conduct. Due to the bankruptcy proceedings, Harvest was not harmed by the delay and confusion because they were not actually a party in the case involving the passengers. The court explained that they could not have been harmed in a case where they were not a party.

As a result, the court concluded that Steadfast asserted and reserved their rights properly and did not waive their coverage defense. But, how does that affect the bankruptcy proceeding? Look for part two to find out.

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The case of American Zurich Insurance v. Caterpillar arose from a truck fire that took place in Natchitoches Parish on April 7, 2010. American Zurich insured the truck and Caterpillar manufactured the truck’s engine. American Zurich opened up a loss file on the truck the day of the fire. American Zurich paid out almost $77,000 dollars to the insured. On April 26, 2010, Zurich was informed of a possible defect in the engine by an inspection agency they hired to look into the claim. A year later, on April 26, 2011 American Zurich filed suit against Caterpillar in West Baton Rouge Parish seeking reimbursement for the costs they incurred, but the case was subsequently moved to Natchitoches Parish in June 2011. On November 10, 2011, the trial court granted Caterpillar’s peremptory exception of prescription and their motion for summary judgment and dismissed American Zurich’s claims. American Zurich appealed the trial court’s decision and the case made its way to the Third Circuit Court of Appeal. While you read the rest of this case summary keep the dates mentioned above in mind.

So why does keeping these dates straight in our minds matter, and what is a peremptory exception of prescription? Actions brought under the Louisiana Products Liability Act, or LPLA, must be filed within one year “from the day injury or damage is sustained.” This one year time period is known as a prescriptive period. A peremptory exception of prescription is a defense motion arguing that the plaintiff has no case because they failed to file their case in the required prescriptive period of time. So one of the major issues in this case became on what date did that prescriptive period begin? Caterpillar claimed it started on April 7, 2010, the day of the fire. American Zurich claimed it began on April 26, 2010, which was the day their investigators told them about the engine defect.

The court noted that “prescription begins to run when the defect manifests itself, not on the date the underlying cause of the defect is found.” In other words, the court said that the one year prescriptive period began on the day of the fire, April 7, 2010. The court points out that American Zurich knew about the fire the day it occurred, and therefore, American Zurich had no basis for arguing that the prescriptive date should have started on April 26, 2010. Thus the court holds that American Zurich did not file their case within the one year prescriptive period required under the LPLA which ran out on April 7, 2011.

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As is often the case, an accident between two vehicles can subsequently involve further vehicles not initially involved in the initial rear-ending accident. The driver of the subsequent vehicle which becomes involved in an accident after the initial crash may be unsure whether they are for damages caused by their own involvement or are able to make a claim for their own damages suffered. The possibility of being responsible or owed for damages in a multiple vehicle accident almost always depends on the circumstances surrounding the driver of the following car involved in the collision after the initial accident.

It is generally presumed under the law the vehicle following other vehicles involved in an accident will be at fault for the resulting accident when it collides with the initial collided vehicles. However, a driver can avoid this presumption of liability if it is shown they were following at a safe distance under the circumstances, their vehicle was under control, and they were closely observing the vehicle ahead of them. There is an additional method of proving no fault for liability referred to as the sudden emergency doctrine. A following driver may be absolved of liability under the sudden emergency doctrine if it is demonstrated the lead driver negligently created a hazard which could not reasonably be avoided. A court is going to look at the circumstances from which the emergency arose and determine whether the person in the position of imminent peril had sufficient time to consider and weigh all circumstances or the best means to adopt to avoid the impending danger of the emergency.

A recent case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeal of Louisiana, King v. State Farm Insurance Co., succinctly demonstrates the applicability of the sudden emergency doctrine in absolving the following driver from complete liability while awarding the following driver damages for injuries incurred. In this case, Ms. King was following a vehicle which struck another vehicle from the rear. Ms. King then swerved onto the shoulder to avoid the accident. Unfortunately, at the same time Ms. King swerved, the vehicle in front of her bounced to the side of the collision directly into Ms. King’s path on the shoulder where she impacted it. The court looked favorably upon the facts that Ms. King had been traveling beneath the speed limit, was observing the car in front of her, and was at a relatively reasonable behind the lead car. The court found that in addition to this the lead driver had created the emergency situation through his own collision, and Mrs. King had taken reasonable precautions by braking, and steering away from the accident. Despite her precautions, the unexpected turning of the vehicle into her emergency path was something she could not have sufficiently avoided in time. Hence, the court found the lead driver had created a hazard resulting in a Ms. King facing a sudden emergency. The court found the lead driver 100% at fault for the damages and injuries Ms. King suffered as a result of the lead driver’s original collision.

In a case involving liability of parties, the court must assess the relative fault of each of the parties. A following driver will not be responsible for liability under the sudden emergency doctrine, unless their actions caused the emergency. In the example case above, the lead driver was found to have created the emergency, and thus Ms. King was at no fault in the subsequent collision. The Court of Appeal of Louisiana held that the trial court had correctly awarded Ms. King for the damages and injuries she had suffered as a result of the accident.

If you believe you have a claim arising from a multiple vehicle accident, contact the Berniard Law Firm. Providing the best experts in liability and assessing accident claims, our law firm is fully capable of meeting your litigation needs.

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In a recent case, a federal appeals court ruled on a longshoreman’s right to recover for injuries sustained when a pile-driving hammer unexpectedly released from a crane and fell on him. His employer had leased the crane from another company in order to perform restoration work on the docks and bulkheads at the Turtle Cove Research Center near Manchac. Luckily, both companies carried insurance. Unfortunately, both insurers quickly pointed the finger at each other.

Such situations occur frequently when contracting parties in large projects require multiple insurance policies to cover the myriad situations which could give rise to liability. The most important question from the victim’s perspective, however, is simply how and when he or she will be compensated.

When such finger-pointing occurs, the task devolves upon the courts to “rank” the policies. The longshoreman’s case, Deville v. Conmaco/Rector L.P., involved competing claims of three insurance companies. The crane owner carried general liability insurance and the employer carried an “excess” insurance policy — a policy which kicks in only after coverage limits have been reached on other applicable policies. In addition to these policies, however, the crane lease itself required the employer to obtain a third policy to cover its use of the crane.