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Prejean v. McMillan

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

February 28, 2019

RONNIE JAMES PREJEAN
v.
CORY MCMILLAN, COREY'S GARDEN OF EDEN SERVICES, LLC, AND HALLMARK SPECIALTY INSURANCE COMPANY

          On Appeal From The Nineteenth Judicial District Court Number 622983, Division D, PArish Of East Baton Rouge State Of Louisiana Honorable William C. Dupont, udge Pro Tempore

          J. Neale deGravelles Benjamin Boone Treuting Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Plaintiff -Appellant Ronnie James Prejean

          Lambert J. Hassinger, Jr. Jeffrey Siemann New Orleans, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant -Appellee Western World Insurance Company

          Corey McMillan Baker, Louisiana Defendant -Appellee Proper Person

          Before: Welch, Chutz, And Lanier, JJ. [1]

          CHUTZ, J.

         Plaintiff-appellant, Ronnie James Prejean, appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment and the dismissal of his claims against defendant-appellee, Western World Insurance Company (Western World), which provided a commercial lines policy to defendant-appellee, Garden of Eden LLC (GOE), based on a finding that the policy did not provide coverage. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Prejean instituted this lawsuit averring that on October 11, 2012, he had been working as an independent contractor tree surgeon for, or alternatively, an under-the-table cash employee of, Corey's Garden of Eden Services, LLC, GOE, Garden of Eden Services, LLC, and/or its owner Corey McMillan on a job that involved trimming a tree on residential property in Clinton, Louisiana. During operations to remove the tree, Prejean sustained injuries.[2] GOE, McMillan, and Western World were among those named as defendants.

         Western World answered the lawsuit and then filed a motion for summary judgment.[3] After a hearing, in a judgment signed on November 6, 2017, the trial court granted summary judgment, concluding that Western World's policy excluded coverage for Prejean's claims, and dismissed the insurer from the lawsuit.[4] Following the denial of his motion for new trial, Prejean devolutively appealed.[5]

         DISCUSSION

         A motion for summary judgment shall be granted only if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions, together with the affidavits, if any, admitted for purposes of the motion for summary judgment, show that there is no genuine issue as to material fact, and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. C.C.P. art. 966B(2). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, appellate courts review evidence de novo under the same criteria that govern the trial court's determination of whether summary judgment is appropriate. Guste v. Lirette, 2017-1248 (La.App. 1st Cir. 6/4/18), 251 So.3d 1126, 1129.

         Interpretation of an insurance policy usually involves a legal question that can be resolved properly in the framework of a motion for summary judgment. An insurance policy is a contract between the parties and should be construed using the general rules of interpretation of contracts set forth in the Civil Code. Interpretation of a contract is the determination of the common intent of the parties. La. C.C. art. 2045. When the words of a contract are clear and explicit and lead to no absurd consequences, no further interpretation may be made in search of the parties' intent. La. C.C. art. 2046. Green v. Johnson, 2016-1525 (La.App. 1st Cir. 1/10/18), 241 So.3d 1188, 1191-92.

         The purpose of liability insurance is to afford the insured protection from damage claims; therefore, policies should be construed to effect, not to deny, coverage. Thus, a provision which seeks to narrow the insurer's obligation is strictly construed against the insurer, and, if the language of the exclusion is subject to two or more reasonable interpretations, the interpretation which favors coverage must be applied. Hinchcliffe v. Siaotong, 2017-1356 (La.App. 1st Cir. 4/18/18), - So.3d -, writ denied, 2018-1113 (La. 10/15/18), 253 So.3d 1304.

         Nevertheless, an insurance policy should not be interpreted in an unreasonable or a strained manner so as to enlarge or to restrict its provisions beyond what is reasonably contemplated by its terms or so as to achieve an absurd conclusion. Unless a policy conflicts with statutory provisions or public policy, it may limit an insurer's liability and impose and enforce reasonable conditions upon the policy obligations the insurer contractually assumes. Green, 241 So.3d at 1192.

         In its motion for summary judgment, Western World asserted that whether Prejean is considered an employee, an independent contractor, or a temporary worker, coverage is excluded for his claims under the plain language of the policy.[6] According to the salient provisions of the Western World policy:

SECTION I- COVERAGES
COVERAGE A BODILY INJURY AND PROPERTY DAMAGE LIABILITY
1. Insuring Agreement
a. We will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of "bodily injury" or "property damage" to which this ...

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