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Pontchartrain Natural Gas System v. Texas Brine Co., LLC

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

June 26, 2019

PONTCHARTRAIN NATURAL GAS SYSTEM, K/D/S PROMIX, L.L.C., AND ACADIAN GAS PIPELINE SYSTEM
v.
TEXAS BRINE COMPANY, LLC

          On Appeal from the 23rd Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Assumption State of Louisiana Trial Court No. 34, 265 Honorable Thomas J. Kliebert, Jr., Judge Presiding

          Leopold Z. Sher James M. Garner Peter L. Hilbert, Jr. Christopher C. Chocheles Jeffrey D. Kessler David A. Freedman New Orleans, LA Travis J. Turner Gonzales, LA R. Ryland Percy, III Gonzales, LA Eric J. Mayer Houston, TX Attorneys for Appellant/Defendant, Third -Party Plaintiff, Texas Brine Company, LLC

          Mary S. Johnson Mandeville, LA Nichole M. Gray Chad J. Mollere New Orleans, LA Attorneys for Appellee/ Defendant, Third Party Defendant, National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA (solely in its capacity as an alleged insurer of Occidental Chemical Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp., and/or Oxy USA, Inc.)

          BEFORE McDONALD, HIGGINBOTHAM, AND CRAIN, JJ.

          HIGGINBOTHAM, JUDGE

         Texas Brine Company, LLC, appeals a September 13, 2017 judgment sustaining a declinatory exception of lis pendens filed by National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa. (National Union), as an alleged insurer of Occidental Chemical Corporation, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, and/or Oxy USA, Inc. (collectively, "Oxy"). The judgment appealed from dismissed "any and all claims, demands, and/or allegations asserted by [Texas Brine] against [National Union] as an alleged insurer of [Oxy] ... in their entirety, WITHOUT PREJUDICE, in favor of the first-filed set of claims and demands[, ]" without declaring which of the multiple sinkhole cases was the first-filed suit.

         BACKGROUND

         The history of this litigation has been repeated multiple times in many appeals. However, we briefly reiterate the background in order to place the present case in its proper context. This appeal is related to the Bayou Corne sinkhole that developed on August 3, 2012, near the Napoleonville Salt Dome in Assumption Parish. As a result of damages arising out of the formation of the sinkhole, Texas Brine was sued in a multitude of lawsuits brought by numerous plaintiffs. In this particular case, the plaintiffs are pipeline companies known as Pontchartrain Natural Gas System, K/D/S Promix, L.L.C., and Acadian Gas Pipeline System (collectively "Pontchartrain"). Texas Brine filed duplicative third-party demands in response to each of the lawsuits against multiple defendants, including Oxy and National Union, as an alleged insurer of Oxy, seeking indemnification, contribution, and reimbursement for response costs and expenses.

         As the litigation progressed in each of the separate lawsuits, some of the third-party defendants, including National Union in its capacity as an alleged insurer of Oxy, filed declinatory exceptions of lis pendens. In this case, the district court ruled in favor of National Union, issuing a judgment on September 13, 2017, sustaining the exception of lis pendens, and dismissing without prejudice any and all claims, demands, and/or allegations asserted by Texas Brine against National Union, in its capacity as an alleged insurer of Oxy. However, even though the parties clearly disputed which of the pending lawsuits constituted the first-filed suit where Texas Brine's duplicative third-party demands should be heard, and the issue was squarely before the district court, no determination was made in the judgment. The district court actually struck through all of the language in the judgment pertaining to the identification of the first-filed suit. Texas Brine appealed the judgment, asserting that the district court erred in dismissing its third-party demand against National Union in the Pontchartrain pipeline case subjudice, which Texas Brine argues should be deemed the first-filed suit.

         This court issued a show cause order on February 19, 2019, stating that the judgment at issue appeared to be ambiguous as to the specific relief granted and was therefore non-appealable, since the district court had made no determination as to what constituted the "first-filed set of claims and demands" as stated in the judgment. Further, this court noted that the determinations of the district court should be evident from the language of the judgment itself without reference to other documents in the record. National Union and Texas Brine filed responses to our show cause order, with Texas Brine agreeing that the judgment on appeal is not a valid final judgment. Texas Brine also moved to supplement the appellate court record and requested that the matter be remanded to the district court for further proceedings on the lis pendens issues between Texas Brine and National Union. On the contrary, National Union maintained that the judgment was final and appealable, and opposed a remand. National Union relied on this court's prior unpublished writ action in another case, finding that a similar lis pendens judgment that did not specifically identify the first-filed suit was a final, appealable judgment. See Crosstex Energy Services, LP v. Texas Brine Company, LLC, 2017-0008 (La.App. 1st Cir. 5/18/17), 2017 WL 2189786 (unpublished).

         DISCUSSION

         Appellate courts have a duty to examine subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte, even when the parties do not raise the issue. Texas Gas Exploration Corp. v. Lafourche Realty Co., Inc., 2011-0520 (La.App. 1st Cir. 11/9/11), 79 So.3d 1054, 1059, writ denied, 2012-0360 (La. 4/9/12), 85 So.3d 698. Initially, we note that this court is not bound by a writ panel's previous action issued in another matter. A regular appeal panel has the authority, and indeed the duty, to review, overrule, modify, and/or amend a writ panel's decision on an issue when, after reconsidering the issue to the extent necessary to determine whether the writ panel's decision was correct, the appeal panel finds that the writ panel's decision was in error. Joseph v. Ratcliff, 2010-1342 (La.App. 1st Cir. 3/25/11), 63 So.3d 220, 223. Mere doubt as to the correctness of the prior ruling by a writ panel is not enough to change the prior ruling; only where it is manifestly erroneous or application of the law of the case doctrine would result in an obvious injustice should we overrule or modify the prior ruling. Id. Additionally, the discretionary law of the case principle does not bar us from reconsidering our prior rulings, especially when the previous decision was clearly erroneous and would result in an inappropriate review of a non-appealable judgment. Id. at 223-24.

         This court's jurisdiction extends to final judgments and interlocutory judgments expressly provided by law. See La. Code Civ. P. art. 2083. A final appealable judgment must contain decretal language and it must name the party in favor of whom the ruling is ordered, the party against whom the ruling is ordered, and the relief that is granted or denied. Further, a valid judgment must be precise, definite, and certain. These determinations should be evident from the language of the judgment without reference to other documents in the record. In the absence of a valid final judgment, this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Advanced Leveling & Concrete Solutions v. Lathan Company, Inc., 2017-1250 (La.App. 1st Cir. 12/20/18), 268 So.3d 1044, 1047 (en banc).

         In this case, it is not possible to determine, from the language of the judgment alone, what constitutes the "first-filed set of claims and demands," as referenced in the judgment. The "first-filed set of claims and demands" is clearly disputed by the parties and was the key issue that should have been decided by the district court. Accordingly, this court is unable to determine the exact relief that is granted or denied by the judgment. We find that the indefinite judgment is clearly not a final, appealable judgment. Thus, we lack subject matter jurisdiction to consider this appeal. Moreover, to the extent that a writ panel's ...


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