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The Suva Corp. v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

November 23, 2017

THE SUVA CORPORATION, ET AL.
v.
JANE RENEE JOHNSON SMITH, ET AL.

         APPEAL FROM THE ELEVENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF SABINE, NO. 63, 173 & NO. 63, 173 HONORABLE STEPHEN B. BEASLEY, DISTRICT JUDGE

          John S. Bradford Stockwell, Sievert, Viccellio, Clements & Shaddock, L.L.P. COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT: Leon Lucien Languirand, Executor, Succession of Martha Ann Hardee Languirand

          Michael S. Coyle Attorney at Law, COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLANTS: Jane Renee Johnson Smith Leon Lucien Languirand, Executor, Succession of Martha Ann Hardee Languirand Trentice Van Johnson, Jr. Hugh Clark Hinton Samual Jackson Hinton Robert Hugh Johnson

          William A. Jones, Jr. Attorney at Law, COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLANTS: Hugh Clark Hinton Samual Jackson Hinton Robert Hugh Johnson Trentice Van Johnson, Jr. Jane Renee Johnson Smith Leon Lucien Languirand, Executor, Succession of Martha Ann Hardee Languirand

          Charles E. Tabor Gregorio, Chafin, Johnson, Poolson & Tabor, L.L.C.COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS/APPELLEES: The Suva Corporation Hardee Family Properties, LLC T. W. Hardee Properties, LLC

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Sylvia R. Cooks, and Shannon J. Gremillion, Judges.

          SHANNON J. GREMILLION JUDGE

         The defendants, [1] heirs to real property located in Sabine Parish, appeal the trial court's finding of a mutual mistake in a deed executed in 1949 by brothers, Hugh and Thomas Hardee, resulting in the plaintiffs[2] being declared the sole owners of tracts of land in question. [3] For the following reasons, we affirm.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND [4]

         In September 2010, the Suva plaintiffs filed a petition for declaratory judgment seeking to be declared the owners of certain immovable property located in Sabine Parish. In October 2010, the Suva plaintiffs filed their first amending and supplemental petition to the petition for declaratory judgment urging that a mutual error existed in the March 9, 1949 deed from Hugh to Thomas that omitted some property from the deed.[5] In response, the defendants filed peremptory exceptions of prescription, no right of action, and no cause of action. The Suva plaintiffs, thereafter, filed a second amending and supplemental petition to their petition for declaratory judgment pleading in the alternative ten years good faith acquisitive prescription and thirty years acquisitive prescription of the disputed property. In their third amending and supplemental petition, the Suva plaintiffs again noted the mutual error omitting the following described property:[6]

         44.

         The mutual error was that some property was omitted from the Deed including the following described property to-wit:

The Southwest quarter of Northwest quarter of Section 15, Township 8 North, Range 11 West, Sabine Parish, Louisiana which property was subsequently transferred by the Deeds, Judgment of Possession and Partition as described in Plaintiff's original Petition to T.W. Hardee Properties, LLC.

         The petition further urged that T.W. Hardee Properties, LLC and its ancestors had possessed the above property since 1947. The defendants filed a reconventional demand urging that the Suva plaintiffs had wrongfully received revenue from timber sales and oil and gas leases from the disputed property. In response, the Suva plaintiffs filed an exception of prescription.[7], [8]

         In August 2015, the Suva plaintiffs filed a motion to consolidate this action with docket number 17-418. The Salamander case was tried first. The Salamander petition described the disputed property as:

Tract 1: The West Half of the Southwest Quarter of the Southwest Quarter of Section 1 and the Southwest Quarter of the Southwest Quarter of Section 3, all in Township 8 North, Range 11 West, Sabine Parish, Louisiana[.]
Tract 2: The Southeast Quarter of the Southwest Quarter of Section 3, Township 8 North, Range 11 West, Sabine Parish, Louisiana[.]

         At the conclusion of the case, the Salamander record was introduced into the Suva case. Following the submission of the documentary evidence to the trial court, it rendered a judgment in December 2016, in favor of all of the plaintiffs, finding that they are the sole owners of the property. The trial court issued extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court concluded that the brothers omitted the disputed tracts by mutual mistake and reformed the 1949 deed to include the disputed tracts.

The defendants appeal the trial court's judgment and assign as error:
1. In order to reform a deed on the basis of mutual mistake and add undescribed tracts to the conveyance, Louisiana Courts have imposed an extraordinary burden of proof on plaintiffs, requiring the plaintiff to prove mutual mistake by "clear, and the strongest possible, proof;" therefore, it was error for the Trial Court to reform the 1949 Deed on what, at best, can only be characterized as inconclusive evidence.
2. It is well established that a deed, as the last expression of the parties' agreement, controls and supersedes whatever previous discussions or agreements may have taken place between the parties; therefore, the Trial Court erred when it imported the omnibus language contained in the Purchase Agreement into the 1949 Deed and used that imported omnibus language as the basis for adding the Disputed Tracts to the 1949 Deed.
3. In determining whether to reform the 1949 Deed and in deciding whether the Plaintiffs had carried their burden of proving mutual mistake by "clear, and the strongest possible, proof, " the Trial Court was obligated to consider all the evidence; therefore, it was error for the Trial Court to disregard the facts that: a. The 1949 Deed did not include the omnibus language contained in the Purchase Agreement;
b. Hugh Hardee retained other tracts of Sabine land he owned in 1949 and which he sold in 1953;
c. In 1953, during Thomas's lifetime, he sold some of the land he had retained in 1949.
d. Hugh Hardee gave Thomas Hardee his power of attorney to add any tracts mistakenly left off the 1949 Deed and Thomas Hardee exercised that power of attorney to add certain tracts, but did not use that power of attorney to add the Disputed Tracts.

         DISCUSSION

         Standard of Review

         The defendants argue that we should review the record de novo because this case involves "contract interpretation." However, we have previously held that the determination of whether a mutual error existed such that contract reformation is warranted is a question of fact, and we will not disturb the trial court's findings unless it was clearly wrong. See Teche Realty & Inv. v. Morrow, 95-1473 (La.App. 3 Cir. 4/17/96), 673 So.2d 1145; WMC Mortgage Corp. v. Weatherly, 07-75 (La.App. 3 Cir. 6/13/07), 963 So.2d 413, writ denied, 07-1475 (La. 10/5/07), 964 So.2d 945. Accordingly, if reasonable people could reach the same conclusion after a review of the record, the trial court's finding cannot be clearly wrong even if, had we been sitting as the trier of fact, we may have ...


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