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Charles v. Safeway Ins. Co. of Louisiana

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

May 15, 2019

KING CHARLES, ET AL.
v.
SAFEWAY INS. CO. OF LOUISIANA, ET AL.

          APPEAL FROM THE SIXTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF IBERIA, NO. 126407 HONORABLE VINCENT JOSEPH BORNE, DISTRICT JUDGE

          Gregory John Laborde Daigle Rayburn LLC COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLEES: Charles Bertrand Curtis Narcisse

          Scott F. Higgins Laborde Earles Law Firm, LLC COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS/APPELLEES: King Charles Patricia Charles Patricia Charles, o/b/o Katlyn Charles Patricia Charles, o/b/o Kevin Charles

          Holli K. Yandle Tracy L. Oakley W. Brett Cain Michael W. Landry COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Safeway Insurance Company of Louisiana

          Court composed of Elizabeth A. Pickett, D. Kent Savoie, and Jonathan W. Perry, Judges.

          D. KENT SAVOIE JUDGE.

         Defendant Safeway Insurance Company of Louisiana, Inc. (Safeway) appeals a judgment rendered in favor of Plaintiffs finding that a policy of insurance issued by Safeway afforded coverage for the Plaintiffs' damages up to the policy limits. Plaintiffs answered the appeal seeking an increase in the total damages awarded. For the following reasons we reverse the judgment in part, affirm the judgment in part, and dismiss Plaintiffs' claims against Safeway.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of an auto accident between Plaintiff, King Charles, and Defendant, Curtis Bernard, that occurred on October 2, 2014, in Iberia Parish. Mr. Bernard, the son of Curtis Narcisse, was driving his father's 1999 Mitsubishi Gallant. Shortly before the accident, an Iberia Parish Sherriff's deputy, Philipp Early, attempted to pull Mr. Bernard over for a broken taillight. However, Mr. Bernard fled from the officer, and a high-speed chase ensued. Mr. Bernard's vehicle ultimately jumped over the railroad tracks and collided with the rear of Mr. Charle's vehicle, which was stopped at a stop sign at an intersection. The two vehicles then crossed the intersection and spun into a third vehicle, which caught fire. Mr. Bernard was arrested and charged with various crimes and traffic violations, and he ultimately pled guilty to aggravated obstruction of a public highway and possession of marijuana.

         On June 11, 2015, Mr. Charles and his wife Patricia, individually, and on behalf of their two minor children, filed a petition for damages naming as defendants Mr. Narcisse, who was the owner of the 1999 Mitsubishi Gallant; Safeway, who was Mr. Narcisse's alleged liability insurer; Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department; and Deputy Early.

         On July 6, 2015, Mr. Charles filed a First Supplemental and Amending Petition for Damages, this time naming as defendants, Mr. Bernard, Safeway, Deputy Early, and Sherriff Louis Ackal in his capacity as Sherriff of Iberia Parish. Deputy Early and Sherriff Ackal were eventually dismissed prior to trial.

         In its Answer, Safeway asserted as a defense to coverage (1) material misrepresentations made by Mr. Narcisse on his insurance application, including his failure to list or disclose Mr. Bernard as a resident of his household and an unlicensed driver, and (2) the intentional and criminal acts exclusions found in the policy.

         On November 23, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a motion seeking a summary judgment regarding Safeway's liability. On March 22, 2016, the trial court granted the motion in part, finding only that Mr. Narcisse had given Mr. Bernard permission to drive the 1999 Mitsubishi Gallant at the time of the accident.

         On September 30, 2016, Safeway filed a motion seeking summary judgment dismissal of Plaintiffs' claims, alleging that there was no coverage because the damages caused by Mr. Bernard's intentional acts and commission of crimes were excluded from coverage under the policy. The motion was subsequently denied, and Safeway's application to this court for supervisory writs was also denied. Charles v. Safeway Ins. Co. of La., 17-280 (La.App. 3 Cir. 5/25/17)(unpublished opinion).

         On August 31, 2017, Plaintiffs and Safeway filed a joint stipulation agreeing that (1) Mr. Narcisse was not at fault, and (2) the amount of Plaintiffs' damages did not exceed the amount required for trial by jury under La.Code Civ.P. art. 1732.

         A bench trial was held April 30, 2018. Thereafter, the trial court rendered a Judgment With Reasons, wherein it strictly construed the criminal acts exclusion in the Safeway policy and found that it did not apply because Mr. Bernard "committed a traffic violation which led to the flight from an officer[.]" The trial court also rejected Safeway's material misrepresentation defense, finding that Mr. Narcisse did not intentionally fail to disclose that his son lived with him. Ultimately, the trial court found Mr. Bernard solely at fault for the subject accident and awarded Mr. Charles $35, 000 in damages, plus judicial interest. It further awarded Mrs. Charles $7, 000 for loss of consortium, as well as $1, 000 in damages for loss of consortium to each of the parties' two children. It ruled that Safeway was liable for these damages up to the coverage limits.

         Safeway appeals. It asserts the following as assignments of error:

1. The trial court committed manifest error when it failed to find that the Intentional Act Exclusion contained in the Safeway. . . policy applied when Curtis Bernard intentionally drove in a reckless and careless manner for which acts both bodily injury and other damages could reasonably be expected to result.
2. The trial court committed manifest error when it failed to find that the first Criminal Act Exclusion contained in the Safeway . . . policy of insurance applied when Curtis Bernard drove in a criminally negligent manner for which acts both bodily injury and other damages could reasonably be expected to result.
3. The trial court committed manifest error when it failed to find that the second Criminal Act Exclusion contained in the Safeway . . . policy of insurance applied when Curtis Bernard operated a motor vehicle in the commission of a crime and/or flight from a crime from which both bodily injury and other damages resulted.
4. The trial court committed manifest error when it failed to find that Curtis Narcisse misrepresented information material in his application for insurance submitted to Safeway . . . such that the policy of liability insurance issued by Safeway . . . is void ab initio and would not provide coverage for the accident.

         Plaintiffs answered Safeway's appeal arguing that "the [j]udgment of the [t]rial [c]ourt should be modified to increase the amount of general and special damages awarded to King Charles from $35, 000.00 to $50, 000.00, plus judicial interest."

         ANALYSIS

         Safeway's Appeal

         In its first three assignments of error, Safeway challenges the trial court's finding that the intentional and criminal acts exclusions in the policy did not apply to the instant facts.

         As stated by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La.1989) (internal citations omitted):

It is well settled that a court of appeal may not set aside a trial court's or a jury's finding of fact in the absence of "manifest error" or unless it is "clearly wrong," and where there is conflict in the testimony, reasonable evaluations of credibility and reasonable inferences of fact should not be disturbed upon review, even though the appellate court may feel that its own evaluations and inferences are as reasonable. The appellate review of fact is not completed by reading only so much of the record as will reveal a reasonable factual basis for the finding in the trial court, but if the trial court or jury findings are reasonable in light of the record reviewed in its entirety, the court of appeal may not reverse even though convinced that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would ...

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