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Chauvin v. Exxon Mobil Corp.

Supreme Court of Louisiana

December 9, 2014

DWAYNE CHAUVIN
v.
EXXON MOBIL CORPORATION, ET AL

Page 762

ON SUPERVISORY WRITS TO THE TWENTY-FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT FOR THE PARISH OF JEFFERSON.

For Applicant: Mary Susan Johnson, Jill Thompson Losch, Chadwick James Mollere, Nichole Mart Gray, JOHNSON GRAY MCNAMARA, LLC.

For Respondent: Glen Marion Pilie, Donald Cole Massey, Martin A. Stern, Edward Paige Sensenbrenner, Valeria Munsterman Sercovich, Roland Manil Vandenweghe, Jr., Gerald James Huffman, Jr., ADAMS AND REESE, LLP; Barbara Lynn Bossetta, Mary Margaret Steele, CURRY & FRIEND, APLC; Timothy John Falcon, Jeremiah Alexander Mark Sprague, Jarrett Stephen Falcon, Juan Cruz Obregon, FALCON LAW FIRM; Frank Marion Buck, Jr., FRANK M. BUCK JR., PLC; Julie Parelman Silbert, Richard Stuart Pabst, Michael R. Phillips, Louis Matthew Grossman, Shannon Alicia Shelton, KEAN MILLER, LLP; Deborah DeRoche Kuchler, Janika D. Polk, Milele St. Julien, Mark E. Best, Michele Hale DeShazo, Skylar C. Barbaso, KUCHLER POLK SCHELL WEINER & RICHESON, LLC; Bettye A. Barrios, Gavin Hodges Guillot, Lauren Raili Bridges, PUSATERI, BARRIOS, GUILLOT AND GREENBAUM, LLC; Thomas E. Balhoff, Judith R. Atkinson, Carlton Jones, III, ROEDEL, PARSONS, KOCH, BLACHE, BALHOFF & MCCOLLIST.

OPINION

Page 763

[2014-0808 La. 1] GUIDRY, Justice.

We granted the writ application to determine whether the plaintiff is precluded from asserting a claim for punitive damages after having settled such claims relating to fear of contracting cancer and increased risk of developing cancer in a prior suit, albeit with a reservation of rights as to a claim for damages related to future cancer that is diagnosed after the effective date of the settlement agreement. The trial court found res judicata barred the plaintiff's subsequent claim for punitive damages relating to the diagnosis of cancer where the same alleged misconduct had given rise to the plaintiff's claim for punitive damages in the earlier litigation asserting fear of contracting cancer and increased risk of developing cancer. The court of appeal granted writs and summarily reversed the trial court's ruling, holding the plaintiff had established an exception to res judicata under La. Rev. Stat. 13:4232(A)(3), because he had reserved his right to bring another action based on the future diagnosis of cancer.[1] For the following reasons, [2014-0808 La. 2] we hold punitive damages relate to conduct and are separate from compensatory damages for injury. Because the plaintiff in this case specifically released all punitive and exemplary damages arising out of the defendant's alleged misconduct, his subsequent claim for punitive damages is barred by res judicata. Accordingly, the trial court correctly sustained the defendant's exception of res judicata and dismissed the punitive damages claim with prejudice.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The plaintiff, Dwayne Chauvin, was previously a plaintiff in a cumulated action styled Warren Lester, et al. v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et al., 2002-19657, Civil District Court, Orleans Parish, Div. N-8. In the Lester litigation, Mr. Chauvin sought damages against Shell Oil Company, Shell Offshore Inc., and SWEPI LP (hereinafter collectively referred to as " Shell" ), among other defendants, for injuries he allegedly incurred as a result of his occupational exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material (" NORM" ) from 1980 to 1992. In February 2011, Mr. Chauvin entered into a Confidential Settlement Agreement (" Agreement" ) with Shell to end his participation in the Lester litigation.

The Agreement provided that, in exchange for a confidential settlement amount, Mr. Chauvin released all past, present, and future claims for damages arising from Shell's conduct and actions that allegedly resulted in Mr. Chauvin's occupational exposure to NORM. This provision defined the " Released Claims" and specifically included " punitive" and " exemplary" damages, as well as all liability arising from Shell's alleged " wanton or reckless conduct." The Agreement further provided that, " [n]otwithstanding the foregoing,..." Mr. Chauvin reserved his right to seek " damages for his future cancer that is diagnosed [2014-0808 La. 3] after the Effective Date of this Agreement[.]" Based on the Agreement, Mr. Chauvin's claims against

Page 764

Shell in the Lester case were dismissed with prejudice in July 2011.

In August 2011, Mr. Chauvin was diagnosed with renal cancer. He filed the present suit against Shell, and others, in April of 2012, in the 24th Judicial District Court, Parish of Jefferson, claiming his cancer was related to his occupational exposure to NORM. In this suit, Mr. Chauvin seeks " any and all damages" related to his cancer diagnosis, including punitive damages, relying on his reservation of rights in the Agreement.

Shell filed a motion for summary judgment and a peremptory exception of res judicata, seeking, in part, the dismissal of all claims barred by Mr. Chauvin's prior settlement with Shell and the dismissal with prejudice of Mr. Chauvin's claims in Lester. Shell attached the Agreement under seal with the district court. According to Shell, Mr. Chauvin's claim for punitive damages was specifically defined as part of the " Released Claims," and was therefore extinguished in the Agreement. Mr. Chauvin argued he had specifically reserved in the Agreement all claims for all damages that arose from his future cancer, including punitive damages related to the future cancer.

The trial court granted the motion/exception to the extent that it dismissed all claims other than damages for Mr. Chauvin's future cancer. When asked for clarification, the trial court stated that " the exemplary and punitive damages claims are dismissed subject to res judicata as a result of the Release other than Mr. Chauvin's individual claim for damages for his cancer itself."

The court of appeal granted Mr. Chauvin's writ application and reversed the district court's ruling. Relying on La. Rev. Stat. 13:4232(A)(3), the third exception to the application of res judicata, see Note 1, supra, the court of appeal found that [2014-0808 La. 4] Mr. Chauvin, in the Agreement, had reserved the right to bring all claims for damages, including punitive damages, in the event he would be diagnosed with cancer in the future. The court of appeal stated:

Relator's claims for punitive damages asserted in the present case did not become exigent until he contracted cancer, and we find that these claims were reserved in the settlement agreement, as they arise from relator's development of cancer. Therefore, res judicata does not apply to relator's claims for punitive damages in this lawsuit, and we reverse the trial court judgment that granted defendants' Exception of Res Judicata in part, as it pertains to punitive damages."

This court granted Shell's writ application to review the correctness of the court of appeal's decision. Chauvin v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, 14-0808 (La. 6/20/14), 141 So.3d 275.

DISCUSSION

In this court, Shell first argues the court of appeal erred in its application of res judicata, because the trial court correctly found res judicata barred Mr. Chauvin's current claim for punitive damages where the same alleged misconduct gave rise to Mr. Chauvin's claim for punitive damages in the Lester litigation, which was settled, as well as to his claim for punitive damages in the current suit. Shell asserts that, because Mr. Chauvin's first claim for punitive damages arising from the same alleged misconduct of Shell was fully released in the Agreement and not included in the reservation of his claim for damages for future cancer, the court of appeal's decision creates the potential for multiple punitive damage awards for the same conduct and evidences a flawed ...


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