Exploring the “Law of the Case” Doctrine in Vernon Parish Car Accident Litigation

Under the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure, judgments are either interlocutory or final. A judgment that “determines the merits [of an issue] in whole or in part” is a final judgment, while a judgment that determines “only preliminary matters” is an interlocutory judgment. Generally speaking, final judgments can be appealed, but interlocutory judgments cannot unless there is a statutory exception that permits the appeal. See La.Code Civ.P. art. 2083. If a court renders a judgment that addresses fewer than all of the claims or that concerns fewer than all litigants in a case, that judgment is not final and may be revised by the court at any time prior to a final judgment. See La.Code Civ.P. art. 1915(B). With parallel reasoning, if a court of appeal denies a writ of appeal, thereby declining to exercise its supervisory oversight of a trial court, the court of appeal cannot affirm, reverse, or modify the judgment of the trial court. This means that “any language in the court of appeal’s … writ denial purporting to find no error in the trial court’s … ruling is without effect.” See Bulot v. Intracoastal Tubular Services, Inc..

Related is the “law of the case doctrine.” This principle pertains to:

“(a) the binding force of trial court rulings during later stages of the trial, (b) the conclusive effects of appellate rulings at the trial on remand, and (c) the rule that an appellate court will ordinarily not reconsider its own rulings of law on a subsequent appeal in the same case.” Petition of Sewerage & Water Bd. of New Orleans.

The doctrine is intended to avoid endless re-litigation of the same issue and to promote consistency of result in the same litigation. It also promotes efficiency by affording the parties a single opportunity to resolve the matter at issue.

The law of the case doctrine was reviewed by Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal in the recent case of Willis v. Gulf Coast Building Supply. The case centered on an auto accident on November 7, 2005. Steve Coronado was operating a tractor-trailer in Vernon Parish on behalf of his employer, Gulf Coast Building Supply, when he struck multiple vehicles. Six lawsuits were filed by various plaintiffs naming as defendants Coronado, Gulf Coast, Home State County Mutual Insurance Company, Gulf Coast’s primary insurer, and Universal Underwriters of Texas Insurance Company (UUT), Gulf Coast’s excess insurance carrier. UUT filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to have the plaintiffs’ claims dismissed because its policy did not cover their claims. The tractor trailer that Coronado was driving at the time of the accident was leased to Gulf Coast by Olympic International; the lease agreement specified that Gulf Coast was responsible for providing liability insurance and that Gulf Coast would name Olympic as an additional insured on its policy. UUT’s policy covered Olympic, but Gulf Coast and Coronado were not named as insured parties. Also, no provision in the policy extended coverage to lessees of the named insured’s property. Therefore, UUT argued that its policy excluded coverage for the plaintiffs’ claims. To further support its position, UUT pointed the trial court to a decision rendered in a case arising out of the same accident that had been filed in federal court by a different plaintiff. In that matter, the federal court granted summary judgment in favor of UUT and dismissed the case on the basis that the UUT policy did not provide coverage for the claims. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

In a subsequent post, we’ll examine the plaintiffs’ response to UUT’s motion and the court’s judgment.