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Lewis v. Fowler

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

September 24, 2018

WALTER LEWIS AND BEVERLY LEWIS
v.
MOLLIE FOWLER AND PROGRESSIVE SECURITY INSURANCE COMPANY

          On Appeal from the Twenty-First Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Tangipahoa State of Louisiana Docket No. 2015-0001360 Honorable Robert H. Morrison, III, Judge Presiding

          Willie G. Johnson, Jr. Jennifer O. Robinson Derek E. Elsey Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Plaintiffs/ Appellants Walter Lewis and Beverly Lewis

          Adrianne L. Baumgartner Covington, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant/Appellee State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

          BEFORE: WHIPPLE, C.J., McCLENDON, AND HIGGINBOTHAM, JJ.

          McCLENDON, J.

         In this suit for personal injuries arising from a motor vehicle accident, the plaintiffs appeal a judgment of the trial court that dismissed their claims against their uninsured motorist carrier. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 11, 2014, the vehicle of the plaintiffs, Walter Lewis and Beverly Lewis, was stopped at a red light in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, when another vehicle, driven by Mollie Fowler, stopped behind them. As stipulated, Ms. Fowler glanced down at her cellphone and inadvertently drifted forward, resulting in a low-speed impact at approximately three to five miles per hour. Ms. Fowler's vehicle was not damaged, and the plaintiffs' vehicle incurred slight damage.[1]

         On May 6, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a Petition for Damages against Ms. Fowler and her liability insurer, Progressive Northwestern Insurance Company (Progressive). In September of 2015, Mr. Lewis agreed to accept $14, 900.00 and Ms. Lewis agreed to accept $25, 000.00 for their injury claims from the defendants, in exchange for a full release of the defendants. The policy limits for Ms. Fowler's liability coverage with Progressive were in the amounts of $25, 000.00 per person and $50, 000.00 per accident.

         Thereafter, on November 20, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a First Supplemental and Amending Petition for Damages, adding State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm) as a defendant and as their uninsured/underinsured (UM) motorist carrier and alleging that their damages exceeded the underlying policy limits.[2]On April 21, 2016, Ms. Fowler and Progressive were dismissed from the lawsuit.

         On August 7, 2017, the trial court held a bench trial on the plaintiffs' remaining claims under their UM policy, after which it took the matter under advisement. On August 25, 2017, the trial court issued its Reasons for Judgment, finding that the plaintiffs failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their chronic pain was aggravated by the motor vehicle accident beyond a brief period of time, and, accordingly, the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently prove that any injuries or aggravations caused by the accident were not adequately compensated for by the underlying insurance coverage. The trial court granted judgment in favor of State Farm and dismissed the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice. A judgment to that effect was signed on September 21, 2017, and the plaintiffs have appealed.

         DISCUSSION

         An appellate court's review of factual findings is governed by the manifest error or clearly wrong standard. The two-part test for the appellate review of a factual finding is: 1) whether there is a reasonable factual basis in the record for the finding of the trial court; and 2) whether the record further establishes that the finding is not manifestly erroneous. Mart v. Hill, 505 So.2d 1120, 1127 (La. 1987). Thus, if there is no reasonable factual basis in the record for the trial court's finding, no additional inquiry is necessary to conclude there was manifest error. However, if a reasonable factual basis exists, an appellate court may set aside a trial court's factual finding only if, after reviewing the record in its entirety, it determines the trial court's finding was clearly wrong. See Stobart v. State, through Dept. of Transp. and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993). The manifest error standard of review obligates an appellate court to give great deference to the trial court's findings of fact. We will not reverse factual determinations, absent a finding of manifest error. Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La. 1989).

         Moreover, where factual findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, the trier of fact's findings demand great deference and are virtually never manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong. Secret Cove, L.L.C. v. Thomas, 02-2498 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/7/03), 862 So.2d 1010, 1016, writ denied, 04-0447 (La. 4/2/04), 869 So.2d 889. Even though an appellate court may feel that its own evaluations and inferences are more reasonable than the factfinder's, reasonable evaluations of credibility and reasonable inferences of fact should not be disturbed upon review where conflict exists in the testimony. Rosell, 549 So.2d at 844. The rule that questions of credibility are for the trier of fact applies ...


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