“Law of the Case” Doctrine, Part 2

In our most recent post, we began a review of the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s application of the law of the case doctrine in a lawsuit that followed an auto accident in Vernon Parish. The plaintiffs, in opposing UUT’s motion for summary judgment, argued that UUT’s no-coverage arguments had previously been heard in a “peremptory exception of no right of action” filed by UUT which the trial court had denied. Both the Third Circuit and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied writs of appeal in that ruling; thus, the plaintiffs argued that the law of the case doctrine should “preclude UUT from re-litigating those same arguments” in the instant case. The plaintiffs also argued that the federal case cited by UUT offered “no precedential value in this state court action.” UUT’s reply asserted that the exceptions previously heard by the trial court “dealt with procedural, rather than substantive, matters,” and were not properly before the trial court at the exceptions hearing. In sum, UUT argued that the trial court’s rulings on the exceptions were interlocutory and therefore “subject to revision by the trial court at any time prior to rendition of final judgment.” The trial court granted UUT’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims based on the finding that there was no coverage under the UUT policy. The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that UUT’s arguments had previously been heard and rejected in an earlier action (the peremptory exception) and therefore “the law of the case doctrine should have been applied because no new argument or evidence was produced by UUT.”

The Third Circuit concluded that UUT showed that “the policy it issued to Olympic did not provide coverage for the plaintiffs’ claims.” The truck Coronado wrecked was a vehicle leased from Olympic, and the UUT policy by its language excluded coverage for leased vehicles. Rather than refute UUT’s position on the merits, the plaintiffs simply “argued that the issue had already been litigated and that the trial court was bound to follow its earlier ruling.” The court rejected that the law of the case doctrine applied. It noted that UUT did not raise coverage issues when it filed its exceptions in the trial court. Instead, “the plaintiffs brought up the issue of coverage in their opposition to UUT’s exceptions.” In fact, UUT was not even made aware of the plaintiffs’ position on coverage until the day of the hearing. “Clearly,” the court concluded, “the issue of coverage under the UUT policy was not squarely before the trial court at the hearing on the exceptions.” In the view of the court, “[t]he issues raised in the motion for summary judgment filed by UUT … did not cause indefinite re-litigation of the same issue[s] as were raised in its [exceptions motion].” Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of UUT.

The Willis case is a stark reminder to litigants that the rules of civil procedure in Louisiana can be extremely complex. Even when the disputed issue in a case (such as whether an auto insurance policy covers a particular driver) is fairly straightforward, a plaintiff can face a complicated path to a resolution without the counsel of an experienced attorney.

If you are facing a dispute with an insurance company, call the Berniard Law Firm today at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you obtain the recovery you deserve.