A Louisiana Court Signs Two Final Judgments, What Happens?

courthouse_building_clock_tower-1024x685When a case ends at the trial court level, the judge signs a physical order document laying out the court’s decisions. This physical order document is called a final judgment; every case will only have one final judgment. Final judgments cannot be amended easily by either the trial court or the parties. The only permissible amendments are those that fix basic errors, such as spelling or arithmetic; all other modifications or changes should be brought up on appeal or in a motion for a new trial. Starnes v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co

A final judgment is not the end of a case. Almost every case has a right to appeal. The appellant will point to the section they believe is wrong and ask the appellate court to fix the issue. So what happens when a Louisiana Court signs two final judgments? The following case out of Baton Rouge demonstrates what occurs when this happens.

A graduate student at LSU fell and injured his ankle while leaving his university apartment when leaving for a work trip. He petitioned for worker’s compensation but later decided to bring a lawsuit against LSU for his injury in the 19th Judicial District Court in the Parish of East Baton Rouge. The 19th judicial district ruled that because he was in the course of his employment, the only remedy that this graduate student could receive was worker’s compensation. 

The trial court rendered this judgment on May 11, 2015, but did not sign a final judgment until May 20, 2015, which LSU’s attorney prepared. This May 20th final judgment granted summary judgment for LSU and dismissed the plaintiff’s case with prejudice. The graduate student’s attorney also prepared a final judgment document that he presented to the court on May 21, 2015. The Court also signed this judgment. This May 21, 2015, final judgment document only granted summary judgment to LSU; it did not dismiss the plaintiff’s case with prejudice. The plaintiff lodged his appeal from this May 21, 2015, judgment document. 

There was a critical difference between the two documents.  The May 20 judgment stated the case was dismissed with prejudice. The May 21 judgment stated the case was dismissed without prejudice. For a case to be “dismissed with prejudice” is the idea that the underlying controversy cannot be decided by the court again. The plaintiff would want the case to be dismissed without prejudice so that they could keep the case alive. 

An underlying principle of any trial court decision is that every case only has one final judgment. In this case, two documents represent the physical manifestation of that final judgment. The First Circuit court of appeals primarily considered which of these two final judgment documents is the governing document. The graduate student based their appeal on the May 21 document; the court of appeals found this to be an error, as this final judgment order substantially changed the effect of the judgment of the case. 

The court of appeals reasoned that a substantive change to a judgment can occur only by filing a contradictory motion for a new trial under LA. C.C.P. art. 1971, by consent of the parties or by a timely appeal. Because the May 21 judgment was none of those, the appeals court found it to be an absolute nullity. Bourgeois v. Kost, and  McGee v. Wilkinson. As a result, the court denied this appeal, affirming the lower court decision that the only avenue of recovery for on-the-job injuries is worker’s compensation. 

Procedure and deadlines are the lifeblood of our court system. While the court of appeals, in this case, did not overturn the underlying ruling, the plaintiff wasted time and effort in preparing and appealing a non-binding final judgment document. Expert attorneys can supply the necessary experience to argue correctly and appeal cases. 


Written By Berniard Law Firm Writer: Ethan W. Seitz

Additional Berniard Cases: Decretal Language: Last Words in a Final Judgment, What Happens When Your Judgment Lacks The Magic Words

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