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Vince v. Koontz

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

February 8, 2017

JONATHAN VINCE AND BRANDI VINCE
v.
DALE KOONTZ AND STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY

         ON APPEAL FROM THE TWENTY-THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF ST. JAMES, STATE OF LOUISIANA NO. 35, 607, DIVISION "B" HONORABLE THOMAS J. KLIEBERT, JR., JUDGE PRESIDING

          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT, JONATHAN VINCE AND BRANDI VINCE Kirk A. Guidry Randolph A. Piedrahita B. Scott Andrews Kris A. Perret

          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE, DALE KOONTZ Marc L. Frischhertz

          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE, STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY Matthew W. Pryor

          Panel composed of Susan M. Chehardy, Marc E. Johnson, and Stephen J. Windhorst

         AFFIRMED

         SMC

         MEJ

         SJW

          SUSAN M. CHEHARDY CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiffs, Jonathan and Brandi Vince, appeal a June 26, 2014 judgment in favor of defendants, Dale Koontz and State Farm Automobile Insurance Company, dismissing the Vinces' personal injury claims arising out of an automobile accident. For the reasons that follow, we affirm this judgment of the district court.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 11, 2012, Mr. Vince was driving a pickup truck when he collided with a SUV towing a large boat on U.S. Highway 61 in St. James Parish. The SUV was being driven by Mr. Koontz.

         On January 4, 2013, Mr. Vince and his wife, Brandi Vince, filed suit seeking damages for their injuries sustained as a result of Mr. Koontz's negligence.[1] Mr. Koontz's insurer, State Farm Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"), answered this petition, denying the Vinces' allegations and averring that the accident was caused by the sole and exclusive negligence of Mr. Vince, or, alternatively, that Mr. Vince's negligence contributed to the accident. Mr. Koontz filed a reconventional demand, likewise alleging that the accident was caused solely by the negligence of Mr. Vince and seeking damages for his injuries.

         On the merits of the Vinces' claims against defendants, the matter proceeded to a jury trial on June 4 and 5, 2014. The parties stipulated that Mr. Koontz's reconventional claims would be tried by the judge, but that the jury's determination regarding Mr. Vince's liability would be controlling in Mr. Koontz's reconventional demand, with the judge only assessing Mr. Koontz's damages should the jury find Mr. Vince liable. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Koontz. According to the verdict form, the jury determined that Mr. Koontz was negligent, but that his negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident. Following the instructions on the verdict form, the jury did not address any remaining issues, including the issues regarding Mr. Vince's negligence, or any allocation of fault between Mr. Vince and Mr. Koontz.

         On June 26, 2014, in accordance with the jury's verdict, the district court entered a judgment dismissing the Vinces' claims in the main demand with prejudice and at their costs.[2] The court deferred ruling on Mr. Koontz's reconventional demand until such time as the parties submitted a motion pertaining to a proposed judgment.

         On July 7, 2014, the Vinces filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") and/or a motion for new trial in which they argued that the verdict form on which Mr. Koontz was found to be negligent, but not a proximate cause of the accident, was a mistake of law. On August 14, 2014, the district court denied the JNOV motion, but granted the Vinces' motion for new trial. In its written reasons for judgment, the court found that the jury was confused regarding causation and that the jury instructions were improperly structured in a way that precluded the jury from reaching the issue of liability of Mr. Vince, which, in turn, precluded the court from rendering a verdict on the reconventional demand in accordance with the stipulation of the parties.

         Mr. Koontz sought supervisory review of this ruling. On November 20, 2014, this Court granted relief, finding "nothing unduly confusing about either the jury instructions or the jury verdict form." Vince v. Koontz, 14-709 (La.App. 5 Cir. 11/20/14) (unpublished writ disposition), writ denied, 14-2682 (La. 3/27/15), 162 So.3d 384. This Court vacated the judgment granting a new trial, reinstating the June 26, 2014 judgment. Id. On April 10, 2015, the Vinces appealed that judgment.

         On December 9, 2015, this Court dismissed that appeal for lack of jurisdiction. See Vince v. Koontz, 15-301 (La.App. 5 Cir. 12/09/15), 182 So.3d 333. We found the June 26, 2014 judgment was not final because it addressed the Vinces' claims in the main demand, but did not resolve Mr. Koontz's claims in reconvention. Id. at 335. Because this partial judgment had not been designated final in accordance with La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B), we were without jurisdiction to consider the appeal pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1911(B). Id. We remanded the matter for the district court to either issue a judgment on the reconventional demand or designate the June 26, 2014 partial judgment as a final judgment for the purpose of an immediate appeal pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B). Id. at 335-36.

         On remand, pursuant to a joint motion by the parties to designate the judgment as final, the district court issued an order on June 27, 2016 designating the June 26, 2014 judgment as a final judgment in accordance with La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B). The Vinces now come back before this Court in this second appeal.

         FACTS

         In November of 2012, Mr. Vince was employed as an operator at the Noranda Alumina plant in Gramercy in St. James Parish. With his wife Brandi, Mr. Vince resided in nearby Prairieville in Ascension Parish. In his daily commute to and from work, Mr. Vince traveled along U.S. Highway 61 (a/k/a "Airline Highway"), a four-lane divided highway. Located along this stretch of highway is the St. James Boat Club, which maintains a boat launch that provides water access at the confluence of Conway Bayou and the Blind River. The club is located on the northbound side of Airline and is accessed by a small road that intersects the highway. For traffic leaving the boat club, this intersection is controlled by a stop sign. When approaching the boat club from the south, just before the club, Airline Highway passes over the Blind River via a short bridge. Mr. Vince explained that law enforcement often sets up speed traps around this location, where the speed limit is 65 miles per hour. So he routinely slows down to at least the speed limit every time he passes over the bridge just before reaching the boat club.

          Around 4:45 p.m. on November 11, 2012, a Sunday, Mr. Vince had completed his shift at the plant and was heading home in his 2002 white Dodge Ram pickup truck. He did not have his seatbelt on. While proceeding northbound in the left lane on Airline, he approached the bridge just before the boat club, so he slowed down to the speed limit. As he did, he observed a GMC Yukon XL Denali towing a large boat leaving the boat club. The vehicle was stopped at the stop sign waiting to merge on to Airline Highway. As Mr. Vince started to pass over the bridge, he glanced down at his cell phone to check a fantasy football score. When he glanced back up, he was three-quarters of the way across the bridge and noticed that the Denali had pulled out onto the highway, blocking both northbound lanes. He estimated that he was 30 or 40 yards from the Denali when he noticed it in his path. Mr. Vince quickly determined he could not safely avoid the truck and boat: to the left was oncoming southbound traffic and to the right was water. So he slammed on his brakes.

         On November 11, 2012, Mr. Koontz, his cousin, and his two children spent the day on the water in Mr. Koontz's new 27-foot cabin cruiser that he had purchased earlier that summer to replace his 17-foot fishing boat. This was Mr. Koontz's first time using his new boat at the St. James boat launch. Mr. Koontz and his family put in at the St. James Boat Club launch around ...


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