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Jones v. Government Employees Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

June 14, 2017

WILLIE JONES
v.
GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES INSURANCE COMPANY

         APPEAL FROM CIVIL DISTRICT COURT, ORLEANS PARISH NO. 2012-11958, DIVISION "C" Honorable Sidney H. Cates, Judge

          Bruce C. Betzer THE LAW OFFICE OF BRUCE C. BETZER And Douglas Hammel THE HAMMEL LAW FIRM COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, WILLIE JONES.

          W. Paul Andersson Alex P. Tilling LEAKE & ANDERSSON, L.L.P. COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT, GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES INSURANCE COMPANY.

          Court composed of Judge Terri F. Love, Judge Madeleine M. Landrieu, Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano.

          Terri F. Love Judge.

         This appeal stems from the denial of an insurance claim for injuries allegedly sustained in an automobile accident in June 2011. Government Employees Insurance Company ("GEICO") appeals the trial court's granting of partial summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff Willie Jones ("Mr. Jones"). The trial court found GEICO acted in bad faith in handling Mr. Jones' uninsured/underinsured motorist ("UM") claim and denied GEICO's cross-motion for summary judgment on the same issue.

         Pursuant to La. R.S. 22:1892(B)(1) and 22:1973(B)(5), we find as a matter of law GEICO did not act in bad faith and is entitled to summary judgment in that it was entitled to seek judicial determination of a cognizable defense to coverage of Mr. Jones' UM claim. We also find genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment as to whether GEICO knowingly misrepresented pertinent facts relating to Mr. Jones' policy in violation of La. R.S. 22:1973(B)(1). We further find the trial court's judgment lacks necessary decretal language and does not dispose of all issues in the underlying suit. Accordingly, we exercise our supervisory discretion and convert the appeal to a writ; reverse the trial court's granting of partial summary judgment in favor of Mr. Jones; grant in part and deny in part GEICO's writ application on the issue of bad faith; and remand for further proceedings in line with this opinion.

         JURISDICTION

         Before proceeding to the explanation of our holding, we first address the trial court's June 23, 2016 judgment. "We cannot determine the merits of an appeal unless our jurisdiction is properly invoked by a valid final judgment." Bd. of Sup'rs of Louisiana State Univ. & Agric. & Mech. Coll. v. Mid City Holdings, L.L.C., 14-0506, p. 2 (La. App. 4 Cir. 10/15/14), 151 So. 3d 908');">151 So. 3d 908, 910. "'A valid judgment must be precise, definite and certain.... The decree alone indicates the decision.... The result decreed must be spelled out in lucid, unmistakable language. .... The quality of definiteness is essential to a proper judgment.'" Id. (quoting Input/Output Marine Sys., Inc. v. Wilson Greatbatch, Tech., Inc., 10-477, p. 12-13 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/29/10), 52 So. 3d 909');">52 So. 3d 909, 915-16) (emphasis added). "'A final appealable judgment must contain decretal language, and it must name the party in favor of whom the ruling is ordered, the party against whom the ruling is ordered, and the relief that is granted or denied.'" Id., 14-0506, p. 2-3, 151 So. 3d at 910 (quoting Palumbo v. Shapiro, 11–0769, p. 5 (La. App. 4 Cir. 12/14/11); 81 So. 3d 923, 927). "Decretal language is defined as the portion of a court's judgment or order that officially states ('decrees') what the court is ordering and generally starts with the formula 'It is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed that ...."' Freeman v. Phillips 66 Co., 16-0247, p. 2 (La. App. 4 Cir. 12/21/16), 208 So. 3d 437, 440 (quoting Jones v. Stewart, 16-0329, p. 5 (La. App. 4 Cir. 10/5/16), 203 So. 3d 384');">203 So. 3d 384, 387 (internal quotations omitted)).

         The judgment's decree states as follows:

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the Plaintiffs Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Requesting a Finding of Bad Faith was GRANTED, with attorney fees and penalties to be determined at a later date.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment was DENIED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the Judgment shall be deemed final for purposes of writ or appeal, where the Court finds no reason for delay.

         The judgment's decree fails to name the party in favor of and the party against whom each ruling is ordered. Instead, it states in general terms that "[p]laintiffs [motion] was GRANTED" and that "[defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment was DENIED." In addition, jurisprudence requires the judgment state what relief is granted or denied. Making general reference to the title of the pleading, the trial court summarily granted plaintiffs partial summary judgment motion. We find that although the title contains an all-encompassing request for a finding of bad faith, recitation of the pleading's title is insufficient to state what relief is granted.

         The portion of the judgment that requires special consideration is the decretal language, which begins with "the formula 'it is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed…." Freeman, 16-0247, p. 2, 208 So. 3d at 440 (quoting Jones, 16-0329, p. 5, 203 So. 3d at 387 (internal citations omitted)). The portion of the written judgment which names the parties and their respective counsel appears before the decretal language and indicates only who was present at the hearing.

         More importantly, the record does not disclose whether the trial court found GEICO to be in bad faith because GEICO delayed making tender while litigating the choice of law issue, GEICO failed to advise Mr. Jones of the specific release requirement in his policy prior to his settling with Allstate, or both.

         The hallmark of a proper judgment is the quality of definiteness. Moreover, "[t]he specific relief granted should be determinable from the judgment without reference to an extrinsic source such as pleadings or reasons for judgment." Bd. of Sup'rs, 14-0506, p. 3, 151 So. 3d at 910 (quoting Input/Output Marine, 10-477, p. 13, 52 So. 3d at 916). The decree states that "[p]laintiff's motion for partial summary judgment requesting a finding of bad faith was GRANTED." In that Mr. Jones pled bad faith under La. R.S. 22:1973(B)(1) in his petition, the definiteness of the decree is essential to determining what issues remain to be decided at trial. Here, however, not even reference to the record as a whole clarifies the specific relief granted. Thus, even disregarding the other omissions,[1] we find the fact that the judgment fails to state the specific relief granted and denied in this case is insufficient to render the judgment appealable. See La. C.C.P. art. 1841; Bd. of Supervisors, 14-0506, p. 2-3, 151 So. 3d at 910. Therefore, in the absence of the necessary decretal language we decline to invoke our appellate jurisdiction.

         Then again, this Court is authorized to exercise our discretion to convert this appeal to an application for supervisory review. Id., 14-0506, p. 3-4, 151 So. 3d at 911 (citing Stelluto v. Stelluto, 05-0074, p. 7 (La. 6/29/05), 914 So. 2d 34, 39). The motions for appeal in this case were filed within the thirty-day period allowed for filing an application for supervisory writs; therefore, we exercise our discretion and convert GEICO's appeal to an application for supervisory review. Id., 14-0506, p. 4, 151 So. 3d at 911 (citing Favrot v. Favrot, 10-0986, p. 5-6 (La. App. 4 Cir. 2/9/11), 68 So. 3d 1099, 1104); Uniform Rules, Courts of Appeal, Rule 4-3.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         In June 2011, Mr. Jones was involved in an automobile accident in New Orleans. The other driver was at fault and insured by Allstate. In June 2012, Mr. Jones settled his claim against Allstate for the policy limits of $15,000.00. Mr. Jones then sought to recover from GEICO additional monies under his policy's UM coverage for the injuries he allegedly sustained from the accident. GEICO declined coverage claiming that Mr. Jones failed to obtain GEICO's approval prior to settling and releasing Allstate, in direct contravention to Mr. Jones' Georgia issued policy and Georgia statutory law.

         In December 2012, Mr. Jones filed a petition for damages against GEICO as his UM carrier, alleging he was injured in an automobile accident with an underinsured motorist. GEICO answered the petition in February 2013. Mr. Jones then filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking a judicial determination that Louisiana law, and not Georgia law, applied to his UM claim. The parties litigated the choice of law issue, and in November ...


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