West Baton Rouge Parish Car Accident is a Cautionary Tale for Plaintiffs Who Sign Releases

In June 2007, Chadwick Dukes and his daughter, Skylah, were driving on La. Hwy. 983 in West Baton Rouge Parish. Their car was struck by a vehicle driven by Paul Declouette and owned by Sheryl Rogers. The following May, Dukes filed a lawsuit on behalf of Skylah seeking to recover damages for the injuries she sustained in the crash. Dukes named as defendants Declouette, and the Imperial Fire and Casualty Insurance Company, which was Declouette’s as-then unknown insurance carrier.

Shortly thereafter, Imperial Fire was identifed and admitted that it had issued an auto liability policy to Declouette that was in effect at the time of the accident. Dukes added Imperial Fire as a named defendant and then signed an agreement to release Declouette and Rogers from the suit. As a result, on November 20, 2008, the trial court entered a judgment to dismiss Dukes’s claims against Declouette. Imperial Fire immediately filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that it could not be found liable because Dukes released its insured customer (Declouette) by agreement without a reservation of rights. Imperial Fire relied on the language of the insurance policy, which obligated the company to pay damages for any injuries for which

An insured person becomes legally responsible because of an accident arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a covered vehicle.

Imperial Fire reasoned that Declouette could never be found liable for the accident because he was specifically released by the agreement with Dukes; given that Declouette could never be legally responsible for the accident, neither could his liability insurance carrier. The trial judge granted the motion for summary judgment, dismissing all claims against Imperial Fire, and Dukes appealed.

In the case styled Dukes v. Declouette, No. 2010 CA 0045 (La. App., 2010), the First Circuit Court of Appeals examined the language of the release agreement between Dukes and Declouette. The court concluded that “although Dukes did not specifically reserve the right to proceed against Imperial Fire in the settlement, it is evident that [Dukes] intended to release … Declouette in his capacity as an insured under that policy.” Because Imperial Fire was not even involved in negotiating the release, the court reasoned, the company should not be able to benefit from the release.

In addition, the court affirmed that “Louisiana law has consistently held that a liability insurer and its insured are co-debtors in solido,” a term that means that two or more parties are each completely and equally responsible for what is owed. Further, under modern law, “a reservation of rights is not required to be included in a release to protect a settling plaintiff’s right to pursue claims against non-settling solidary obligors.” In essence, the court concluded, it was not necessary for Dukes to include a statement in the release agreement reserving his right to sue Imperial Fire even after releasing Declouette. Thus, the court reversed the summary judgment in favor of Imperial Fire and sent the case back for a full trial.

Although the Court of Appeals sided with Dukes in this case, it is clear that the outcome could have been vastly different if the language of the release had been drafted in some other way. The courts are not sympathetic to plaintiffs who agree to release potential defendants from liability only to turn around later and attempt to sue. And inadvertence does not get far with the courts. For this reason, it is critical to have an experienced attorney on your side through every step of the litigation process to ensure that any settlement agreements or releases you may enter into are as strategically beneficial as possible.

If you have been injured in a car wreck, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an experienced accident attorney who can help.