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Fontenot v. Safeway Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

June 13, 2018

HOLLY FONTENOT, ET AL
v.
SAFEWAY INSURANCE COMPANY OF LOUISIANA

          APPEAL FROM THE THIRTY-SIXTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF BEAUREGARD, NO. C-2016-0232 HONORABLE MARTHA ANN O'NEAL, DISTRICT JUDGE

          R. Scott Iles COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS/APPELLANTS: Holly Fontenot and Kristi Young

          Holly K. Yandle Tracey L. Oakley Angelique P. Provenzano-Walgamotte W. Brett Cain Michael W. Landry COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE: Safeway Insurance Company of Louisiana

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Sylvia R. Cooks, Marc T. Amy, Phyllis M. Keaty and John E. Conery, Judges.

          SYLVIA R. COOKS JUDGE

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This appeal stems from a single vehicle accident which occurred on December 20, 2015 on South Texas Street in DeRidder, Louisiana. On that date the plaintiff, Holly Fontenot, was operating a 2008 Subaru Impreza with the permission of the owner. The vehicle had been purchased used from a car dealership approximately six months before the accident by Patricia Neil and her husband.[1] The Neils were the parents of Holly Fontenot's fiance, Chris Reid. Guest passengers in the vehicle that day were two minors, Haley Young and Makenzy Young, who were sitting in the backseat. Plaintiff lost control of the vehicle and it ran off the roadway, striking a utility pole. No other vehicle was involved.

         Holly Fontenot and Kristi Young, on behalf of her two minor children, Haley and Makenzy, filed suit seeking damages for the injuries allegedly sustained as a result of the accident. The petition alleged Ms. Fontenot suffered "injuries to her back, knees and hand/finger as a consequence of the accident." It was further alleged the two minor children "sustained whiplash type injuries as a consequence of the accident." The sole defendant named in the suit was Safeway Insurance Company of Louisiana, who had issued a policy of insurance covering the Impreza to Patricia Neil.

         It was alleged that the accident occurred due to a lack of maintenance on the vehicle. In particular, Plaintiffs contended the Impreza ran off the road because of a broken tie rod, which caused the immediate failure of the steering mechanism. An answer was filed by Safeway, denying the allegations.

         The matter was tried before the district court on April 19, 2017. After the close of Plaintiffs' case, Defendant moved for a directed verdict/involuntary dismissal pursuant to La.Code Civ.P. art. 1672(B), contending Plaintiffs failed to show any right to relief under the evidence presented. After hearing oral argument from the parties, the trial court orally granted the motion for directed verdict, stating as follows:

At this time, I will grant the directed verdict. I think that while I don't doubt that the injuries occurred, I believe the basis of this law suit has not been proved. There's been insufficient evidence to prove that there has been no maintenance on the vehicle. There's not been introduced anything about the purchase of the vehicle verifying the mileage, the condition of the vehicle, the warranties or anything other things. There's nothing to prove by any expert what actually caused the car to go off the road. Whether or not as the Officer said, the tie rod broke as a result of causing the crash or if hitting the curb caused the tie rod to break. It could be either way and we don't presume thins under the law. That has to be proven and I think there is a lack of sufficient evidence to prove that at this time. So, the directed verdict is granted.

         Judgment was rendered on May 17, 2017, dismissing Plaintiffs' claims with prejudice. Plaintiffs have appealed, arguing the trial court erred in failing to find liability on the part of Safeway as the insurer of a defective vehicle.

         ANALYSIS

         A motion for involuntary dismissal is the proper procedural vehicle in cases where the action is not tried before a jury. The procedure governing motions for involuntary dismissal is found in La.Code Civ.P. art. 1672(B), which provides as follows:

B. In an action tried by the court without a jury, after the plaintiff has completed the presentation of his evidence, any party, without waiving his right to offer evidence in the event the motion is not granted, may move for a dismissal of the action as to him on the ground that upon the facts and law, the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. The court may then determine the facts and render judgment against the [2007-1588 La.App. 3 Cir. 5] plaintiff and in favor of the moving party or may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence.

         Pursuant to Article 1672, the trial court must consider and weigh the Plaintiffs' evidence and dismiss the matter if it determines they have not met their burden of proof. Kite v. Carter, 03-378 (La.App. 3 Cir. 10/1/03), 856 So.2d 1271. The trial court's grant of an involuntary dismissal is subject to the well-settled manifest error standard of review. Id. Accordingly, in order to reverse the trial court's grant of involuntary dismissal, we must find, after reviewing the record, that there is no factual basis for its finding or that the finding is clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. See Stobart v. State, through DOTD, 617 So.2d 880 (La.1993). The issue is not whether the trial court was right or wrong, but whether its conclusion was reasonable. Id.

         A review of the oral reasons for judgment show that the trial court granted the motion for involuntary dismissal because Plaintiffs failed to establish "what actually caused the car to go off the road, " as well as "producing insufficient evidence to prove that there has been no maintenance on the vehicle." Therefore, to grant Plaintiffs the relief they seek on appeal, we must find the trial court's conclusion in these areas to be unreasonable.

         Plaintiffs based their suit on the fact that they suffered injuries arising out of the use of a vehicle owned by the Defendant's insured that had a dangerous defect. The Louisiana Supreme Court in King v. Louviere, 543 So.2d 1327 (La.1989) held the owner of a vehicle, rather than a driver who has not been charged with maintenance of the vehicle, is liable for damages when an automobile accident arises out of a defect in a vehicle in his care or "garde." Under our law, the responsibility for damages in such a case rests with the owner of the vehicle when it remains in his care. Id. In Williams v. U.S. Agencies Casualty Ins. Co., 00-1693 (La.2/21/01), 779 So.2d 729, Justice Victory, in his concurring opinion, discussed the need for placing such responsibility on the owner in such cases:

. . . the owner is the party liable for damages caused by his vehicle's defects, [and to hold otherwise] would leave the motoring public unprotected whenever such . . . an accident occurs as a consequence of a latent defect in a vehicle that remains under the care and custody of its owner. For instance, if the owner of a vehicle with faulty brakes lends the vehicle to a friend who has an accident as a consequence of the brake failure, the injured party could sue the owner's insurer. . . If there is no coverage for the owner because of a policy exclusion, the innocent injured third party may have no effective recovery. This result would defeat the public policy manifested in ...

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