Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

news_stock_newspaper_glasses-scaledInsurance claims can be tricky, especially when multiple parties and contracts are involved. What happens, for example, when one insurance company claims they are not responsible for payment after a catastrophic event resulting in lost lives? The following Terrebonne Parish case follows this exact scenario. 

 An explosion at the Transco facility in Gibson, Louisiana, resulted in the death of four individuals, including two employees of Danos and Curole Marine Contractors, LLC (hereinafter referred to as  “Danos”) and two employees of Furmanite America, Inc. (hereinafter referred to as “Furmanite”). The Danos employees were working under a request-for-service order issued by Transco under a General Service Agreement, and the Furmanite employees were working as a subcontractor to Danos under a request-for-service order under a Master Service Contract. Following the explosion, many lawsuits, including this one, were filed against Transco, Danos, and Furmanite.

Transco then filed a third-party demand against The Gray Insurance Company (hereinafter referred to as “Gray”), maintaining that Gray must defend and indemnify Transco under a provision in an insurance contract issued to Danos for which Transco was named additionally insured under the General Service Agreement. Gray then filed multiple objections to Transco’s claim based on prematurity. The 32nd Judicial District Court for the Parish of Terrebonne then dismissed Transco’s claims. An appeal to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal by Transco followed.

courthouse_court_law_justice_0-1-scaledAllocating damages in a wrongful death case is challenging because putting a price on a life is hard. Therefore, if a family in a wrongful death case feels the jury abused its discretion in calculating that monetary value, then the family can resort to a motion for JNOV to try and correct the decision. However, this is a rigorous standard, and a recent case out of Baton Rouge outlines how a court reviews these motions. 

Noha Salama was visiting family in Louisiana from her home in Israel. Her nephew picked her up from the airport in New Orleans, and the two drove down Interstate 10 toward Baton Rouge. The nephew exited the highway at Louisiana Highway 44/Burnside Drive in Gonzales and stopped at the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp. In an attempt to re-enter the interstate, the nephew drove the vehicle across the four-lane highway and failed to stop at the median, which divided the north and southbound lanes. Once the vehicle crossed over the median, it was broadsided by two cars going south. Salama, who was in the front passenger seat, died at the accident scene. 

Salama’s husband and five children filed a wrongful death action against her nephew, his insurer, the drivers of the two southbound vehicles, their insurers, and the DOTD. The family settled with all of the defendants except for the DOTD, and their case against the DOTD proceeded to a jury trial. The family alleged the DOTD, which had control over the intersection, was at fault for the accident for treating the Highway 44 exit and entrance ramps as a single intersection rather than two separate intersections. 

medical_emergency_emergency_ambulance-scaledMedical malpractice claims are brought when a patient is a victim of negligence at the hands of their physician. Due to the nature of this category of claims, stories of medical malpractice are often horror stories showcasing worst-case scenarios. Even further, the most intense medical malpractice claims result in the death of the patient. Understandably, the patient’s family may seek to find responsibility for the death of their loved one. In the following lawsuit, a family fails to show the legal requirements to bring a medical malpractice claim after their family member died during surgery. 

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are the surviving family members of a man who died during brain surgery by the defendant’s physician. The family contends that due to the deceased’s history of cardiac trauma prior to surgery, he should have been evaluated for cardiac fitness before the physician performed the surgery. The trial court found that the expert testimony proffered by three physicians was insufficient to prove that medical malpractice had occurred. The plaintiffs appealed the decision, insisting that the defendant had breached his duty of care by not ordering further cardiac tests.

The plaintiff must establish the elements of a medical malpractice claim to bring the claim successfully. The first element required to be shown is the standard of care at which comparable physicians in Louisiana generally exercise when taking care of their patients. The second required element is that the defendant failed to meet the reasonable care prescribed by the first element or lacked the required knowledge altogether. The third and final element is that the failure to exercise reasonable care caused the plaintiff’s injuries. La. R.S. 9:2794(A)

exxon_valdez_cleanup-scaledWe have all read headlines about lawsuits filed against gas and energy companies by workers who have developed health problems at their facilities. But what happens when a plaintiff files a lawsuit which could be barred by a workers’ compensation act? Will the claim be able to withstand a peremptory exception? How does the plaintiff fight against such a motion?

Susan Mulkey appealed a trial court judgment sustaining a peremptory exception dismissing her claims against Exxon Mobil Corporation for damages. Her case arose from the death of her husband, Michael Mulkey Sr., who was exposed to toxic chemicals during his time at Exxon. Mulkey Sr. worked at Exxon for thirty-five years, during which he was exposed to benzene. He was subsequently diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. 

Mulkey Sr. claimed forty-one employees of Exxon were liable for his damages because of their negligence in properly safeguarding the work environment. When Mulkey Sr. died from leukemia, his wife and children filed a lawsuit for damages. Exxon filed a peremptory exception, claiming Mulkey failed to state a cause of action, which the trial court sustained. Exxon was eventually dismissed from the lawsuit, which Mulkey appealed. 

law_justice_court_judge-scaledImagine being on a jury – everything you hear has gone through a process of admittance to be used as evidence during the trial. What the jury is told often plays a role in what the jury thinks of the parties and how it assigns blame amongst them. The following lawsuit explores what happens when a defendant challenges the admittance of a piece of evidence it believes unfairly swayed the jury against it. It also helps answer the question; can a litigant exclude evidence in a car accident lawsuit?

Elsie Boudreaux and her mother, Thelma Bizette, passed away due to a car accident in Addis, Louisiana. The surviving family members brought a lawsuit against the Louisiana State Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). A jury found the accident to be 60% the fault of Boudreaux and 40% the fault of the DOTD.

The DOTD appealed the trial court’s ruling, alleging it erred in denying their motion to exclude evidence of how the department collected crash reports at the accident site. They claimed evidence on crash report procedures was irrelevant to how the accident occurred. They also claimed they were unduly prejudiced because the evidence misled the jury. 

us_navy_040501_n_14People rely on public services daily, from fire departments to police officers. But what happens if a public entity is responsible for an injury? Can they be held liable for negligence? A recent case out of Grand Isle, Louisiana, shows how public entities can be shielded from liability for negligent conduct in some circumstances. It also helps answer the question; Can a state fire marshall be liable for inspector negligence in a wrongful death lawsuit in Louisiana?

In 2012 a fire in the Willow Creek Apartments in Grand Isle, Louisiana, killed two occupants, Belle Christin Brandl, and Timothy Joseph Foret. Brandl’s three children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the apartment’s owners, Steven Caruso and Willow Creek, L.L.C., their insurers, and the State of Louisiana through the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Office of the State Fire Marshal (SFM) and its inspector. The plaintiffs argued Marchiafava as an inspector, failed to properly look into reports of fire hazards that caused the fire, failed to notify the building owners of any hazard and resolve the hazard, and falsified reports regarding his inspection of the Willow Creek building. SFM and the inspector denied the allegations arguing the inspector did investigate an unverified public complaint at the building, which revealed no serious life hazards. Further, the residents of the building did not have any further complaints of hazards. 

SFM and the inspector filed an exception of no cause of action on the grounds SFM and the inspector did not owe a legal obligation, otherwise known as a duty, to the plaintiffs. The trial judge granted the exception. Then SFM and the inspector filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, which was granted, and the plaintiffs filed an appeal. 

transportation_vehicle_road_879026-scaledDriving poses undeniable risks. However, travelers may need to consider how unsafe a barrier curb may be in certain situations. When is the state liable for these conditions? A case from the St. John Baptist parish considered how the state department of development and transportation was at fault for construction risks that contributed to an accident. 

One afternoon, James Harris drove along the Airline Highway in Louisiana with his wife and their two grandchildren. As Harris traveled southbound, another northbound driver, Marilyn (MB), began driving erratically. MB’s car eventually drifted into the opposite side of traffic after crossing over a barrier curb on the highway. Harris moved onto the right-hand shoulder of the road to avoid MB. Unfortunately, despite his efforts to prevent a collision, MB’s vehicle crashed into Harris’, and he injured his left leg, foot, and hip. Ultimately, Harris’ left leg was amputated eight inches below the knee, and MB died from the accident. 

Harris sued the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) for failing to have a jersey curb that would have prevented MB’s car from drifting into the opposite side of traffic. In addition, he sued Progressive Security Insurance Company, MB, MB’s insurance provider. The trial court found the DOTD to be 90% at fault and Ms. MB to be 10% at fault for the accident, and the jury ultimately awarded Harris $5,000,000 in general damages and $1,000,000 for loss of enjoyment of life. On appeal, the DOTD argued that the trial court abused its discretion in finding the DOTD liable and in the number of damages awarded to Harris. 

bauer_elementary_asbestos_2-scaledRisks are involved with many jobs. While employees may take risks at work, knowingly or unknowingly, one does not usually expect to put their family at risk while on the job. Jimmy Williams Sr found himself in this situation when his exposure to asbestos at work impacted his wife’s health through her handling his work clothes. 

Myra Williams died at fifty-nine after being diagnosed with incurable mesothelioma, an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. She endured a difficult and painful battle with the disease until her death. Myra’s husband, Jimmy Williams, worked for the Placid Oil Facility in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and was constantly exposed to asbestos fibers. Unfortunately, he unknowingly brought the dangerous fibers home on his clothing that was handled and washed by Myra. 

Jimmy Williams Sr filed a lawsuit for the death of his wife. This lawsuit was against several defendants, including Placid Oil Company and Ingersoll-Rand Company. The lawsuit alleged that products being used at Placid Oil Company were produced by Ingersoll-Rand and were the cause of the asbestos exposure that impacted Jimmy’s clothing. The courts in this lawsuit used the “substantial factor test” to determine whether Myra’s claims could be related to the exposure caused by the handling of her husband’s clothes. So what is this “substantial factor test” and how does it work?  The following helps answer that question.

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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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 filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and the passengers in the accident filed in its bankruptcy proceeding as a creditor for “an amount to be determined.” Where an insured filed for bankruptcy, it was very smart of the injured party to file as a creditor because that helps protect their interest if the insurance company refuses to pay Harvest’s liability coverage.

When an individual or company files for bankruptcy, federal law provides an automatic stay on any other litigation proceedings. That means that all other litigation involving the debtor must be paused until the bankruptcy proceeding is closed. Therefore, Harvest dropped out of the insurance lawsuit, and the passengers had to sue the insurance company alone.

As a result, when Steadfast asserted the watercraft exclusion, that meant that the passengers could no longer sue the insurance company and had to sue the insured himself. Since the insured was in bankruptcy proceedings, there was not only a delay in the litigation because of the stay, but there was also a very real chance that the injured parties may not get any money.

When an individual goes into a bankruptcy proceeding, they have to pay off their creditors in a certain order. First, the secured creditors will receive payment. A secured creditor has something that they use as collateral for the loan or credit that they extended to the debtor. For example, if you have an automotive loan, your car is likely your collateral or security. If you file bankruptcy and cannot pay for your car loan, then, with a few exceptions, they will likely come take your car. When a creditor is unsecured, however, they cannot take anything and must share with all of your other unsecured creditors. That likely means that they will not get paid the entire debt that they are owed, and will usually only receive a small portion of their money back.

A judgment is an unsecured debt, and because the passengers filed so late, they are likely at the back end of the line of creditors in the bankruptcy proceeding. Louisiana law allows those with liability coverage to sue the insurer directly when the insured has been removed for bankruptcy proceedings under the Louisiana Direct Action statute. So, if the insurance company would have covered the accident, then the insurance company would have paid them directly instead of going through the insured. This is because liability coverage in Louisiana is not the property of the insured; it is the property of whoever the injured party was. Other types of insurance coverage, such as collision, for example, would still be the property of the insured and would be included in the bankruptcy proceedings. Where the insurance coverage would be a property of the estate, then the stay that applies to the insured would also apply to the insurer. However, that is not the case here because the liability coverage is not property of the insured.

Once the court decided the reservation of rights and waiver issues, then it questioned how those decisions were affect the bankruptcy proceeding. The court considered claim and issue preclusion. Preclusion in civil cases is a lot like the rule against double jeopardy in criminal cases; the idea is that you cannot keep taking someone back to court for the same offenses over and over again.

Claim preclusion does not allow the same parties or parities that are in privity, or connected in some way, to try the same claim or cause of action after a court of competent jurisdiction has rendered a final verdict. If the claim was litigated to completion, then it cannot be litigated again. It is sometimes difficult to determine if parties are in privity, however. Usually these relationships are based on a connection so strong that liability of one would normally be the liability of another such as in employee and employer relationships. An insurance company sued under the Louisiana Direct Action statute could be an example, but only if the insured’s and the insurer’s interests are aligned. In this case, because the insurer is asserting a coverage defense, then their interests are not aligned and they are not in privity. Therefore, claim preclusion does not affect the bankruptcy suit.

Issue preclusion is virtually the same as claim preclusion except that it applies to only one issue in the lawsuit instead of the entire case. The issue still needs to be completely decided by a court of competent jurisdiction, however. It also requires that the parties be the same, but there is no privity exception. Since the parties will not be the same in the bankruptcy proceeding, issue preclusion has no effect on the bankruptcy proceeding either.

The law overlaps occasionally and can result in some confusing and interesting results. You need an experienced attorney to help you navigate the legal waters.

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