Hurricane Katrina Case Allowed to Move Forward

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastate much of the Gulf Coast, prompting the Louisiana Legislature to enact Acts 2006, which extended the prescriptive period within which insured’s were allowed an additional year to file certain claims under their insurance policies for losses incurred by the storms. Despite many insurance contracts granting only one year for insured’s to file claims, this prescriptive period extension allowed many residents more time to file as a result of the difficult circumstances caused by the storm. The Louisiana Supreme Court recently were asked to determine whether the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit, seeking damages from the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation (LCPIC), filed nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina had prescribed. In an earlier decision made by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, the prescriptive period was held to be interrupted by a timely filing of a class action petition against the insurer, which included the Plaintiffs as putative class members. Time is of the essence when filing lawsuits, here, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs were timely and permitted to continue their lawsuit against LCPIC.

The plaintiffs, like so many other Gulf Coast residents, suffered extensive property damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Maneuvering through the insurance filing process became tedious and very difficult, the plaintiff’s constantly received refusals by the insurance company to make any payments on their policy limits. Thus, the plaintiff’s turned to legal help in order to obtain help to rebuild their homes and their lives. On June 27, 2008, the Plaintiffs filed a petition against their insurer, LCPIC, seeking payment of their policy limits and damages, including damages for emotional distress and mental anguish. The allegations included: The plaintiff’s property was completely destroyed during the storm, the properties in question were covered by a policy of insurance issued by the defendant LCPIC, yet, the company refused to pay the policy limits. In response, LCPIC filed an Exception of Prescription, arguing that the suit was not filed within one year of loss and that the extended period of prescription provided by legislation had also expired. The trial court initially granted the defendant’s exception of prescription and dismissed the plaintiff’s claim with prejudice, finding that they had failed to file their claim timely. However, on appeal the trial court’s decision was reversed, the prescriptive period had been interrupted by the timely filing of a class action against the defendant insurer in which the Plaintiff’s were putative class members.

Prescription, as defined by Louisiana’s civilian tradition, is defined as a means of acquiring real rights or of losing certain rights as a result of the passage of time. In the case of Cichirillo v. Avondale Industries, Inc, the court reasoned that prescription is designed to “afford a defendant economic and psychological security if no claim is made timely and to protect the defendant from stale claims and from the loss or non-preservation of relevant proof.” Prescription itself is a safety measure that was created in order to prevent defendants from the constant fear of a lawsuit twenty or more years after the fact. Conversely, the other type of period that exists in Louisiana, is liberative prescription. This is a period of time fixed by law for the exercise of a right, yet, a contractual limitation period is not a period of time fixed by law, it is a fixed agreement between the parties. Time is of the essence, yet, there are exceptions to the rule, this is exemplified by the fact that Louisiana extended the initial one year prescriptive period for property damage claims against insurers, for one additional year, allowing victims fo Hurricane Katrina more time to organize the various aspects of their lives that were devastated by the storm.

The primary issue in this recent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, was whether or not the class action suit in which the plaintiff’s were putative class members, interrupted prescription, thus, allowing them continued access to their legal claim against the insurance company. Louisiana civil code article 1793 states, “Any act that interrupts prescription for one of the solidary obligees benefits all the others.” Thus, by becoming putative class members in the initial lawsuit against the insurance company, the plaintiff’s maintained their legal claims against the defendants, allowing them to pursue further legal action against the company despite the passage of time. The court of appeal held that the filing of the class action suits against LCPIC suspended or interrupted the running of prescription against the plaintiff’s property damage claims since they were found to be putative class members when the original class action petitions were filed.

The defendant insurer argued that the contract, which provided one year from the date of the property damage, was the governing time period, even over the statutory extension provided by the Louisiana Legislature. The defendants supported this assertion by declaring that the public interest is served by permitting the insurer to limit the time of its exposure, as Louisiana Civil Code 802 states, “any suit not instituted within the specified time and any claims relating thereto, shall be forever barred unless a contract or the parties thereto provide for a later time.” However, even though the plaintiff’s did not unilaterally file a claim against the insurer within the one year contractual time period, they did enter into the class action against the insurer within the aforesaid time period. Upon the filing of the class action, liberative prescription on the claims arising out of the transaction or occurrences described in the petition were suspended as to all members of the class. The insurance contract provided a contractual time period, not a prescriptive time period, as a result, the additional one year time period afforded to Gulf Coast residents affected by the storm governs. The insurance company attempted to assert the contractual nature of its agreement to circumvent the application of the general codal and statutory rules of prescription is adverse to Louisiana civil Code Article 3471, which clearly circumscribes the limits of any contractual agreement attempting to incorporate a limitation period different from that established by law. Specifically, Louisiana Civil Code Article 3471 states:

A juridical act purporting to exclude prescrption, to specify a longer period than that established by law, or to make the requirements of prescription onerous, is null.

Thus, parties cannot “opt out” of prescriptive periods created by general codal and statutory rules. The plaintiff’s entered into a class action within the prescriptive time period, this interrupted the passage of time that would have taken away their legal rights to sue the insurer. Thus, the subsequent suit against the defendants was timely, and despite the contractual language that attempted to circumvent the Louisiana Legislature, the plaintiff’s filing was timely.

If you need help or advice about whether or not you have a case that has not prescribed, please call call the Berniard Law Firm the Berniard Law Firm. Experienced attorneys are here to help you every step of the way. Please call toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help.

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