Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

empty-hall-2-1545642-1-1024x607For a plaintiff to prove a negligence case, he or she must prove, among other things, that the defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff. See La. C.C. art. 2315 (2016). Often, this element of negligence is overlooked and taken for granted which can lead to dismissal of the plaintiff’s case. A recent Louisiana Court of Appeal case out of the Third Circuit illustrates the importance of proving duty in a negligence case.

The case centers around the suicide of Lelia Shelvin while in Lafayette Parish County Sheriff custody. Sheriff Mike Neustrom arrested Ms. Shelvin for aggravated battery with a dangerous weapon. Sheriff Neustrom then took Ms. Shelvin to Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. While at the center, Ms. Shelvin committed suicide. Ms. Shelvin’s estate filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Neustrom, alleging that Sheriff Neustrom was at fault for Ms. Shelvin’s suicide.

At trial, Sheriff Neustrom filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he had no duty to Ms. Shelvin because her suicide was a “sudden and completely unpredictable event.” A motion for summary judgment asks the court to decide a case before going to trial, so long as all material facts are agreed upon by the parties. The trial court granted Sheriff Neustrom’s motion for summary judgment, ruling in favor of Sheriff Neustrom. Ms. Shelvin’s estate, disagreeing with the trial court, appealed the decision.

healthcare-upclose-1322372-1024x768Because of the highly technical aspect of seeking relief from the court system, someone unfamiliar with the legal process can be confused and frustrated by the litigation process. This circumstance can be intensified by the harm done and the matter being litigated. Mr. William Matthews, the surviving husband of Mrs. Geranda Matthews, faced this exact problem when filing a medical malpractice claim against two of his wife’s physicians and Louisiana State University Health Systems.

In 2009, Mrs. Matthews went to the hospital complaining of pain. Unbeknownst to the Matthews at the time, the pain was caused by lung cancer. Allegedly, two physicians at Moss Regional Medical Center failed to properly diagnose and treat her cancer until April 2010. The plaintiff also alleged that, because of the physicians’ failure to properly diagnose and treat her, cancer attached to her spinal cord, which caused intense pain, eventually paralysis, and she later passed away.

A claim was submitted to a medical review board, which found that the physician breached the standard of care.  Subsequently, a medical malpractice lawsuit was filed with the Judicial District Court for the Parish of Calcasieu. Mr. Matthews also filed a motion for summary judgment on liability, causation, and damages. Louisiana State University Health Systems, the Defendant, opposed the motion asserting that there was a factual dispute over whether Ms. Matthews pre-existing condition contributed to her damages.  After a hearing, the District Court granted the motion for summary judgment on the issues of liability and causation, leaving calculating damages for another motion for summary judgment or trial. Louisiana State University Health Systems appealed the judgment to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.   

old-country-red-barn-1633768-1024x683When someone dies because of another person’s negligence certain individuals can bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the negligent party. Normally, those who may recover under a claim for wrongful death and survival are limited to a certain class of persons. In such cases, the plaintiff can be the surviving spouse, a surviving child, the decedent’s parents, the decedent’s siblings, or the decedent’s grandparents. La. C.C. arts. 2315.1 (2016); La. C.C. arts. 2315.2 (2016). But what happens when there are multiple people who are entitled to bring the wrongful death suit? Can a biological father recover in his son’s wrongful death and survival suit when the son is presumed to be the child of another man? Recently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana addressed these issues when it decided a case involving a fatal car crash.

On March 8, 2013, Juan Joseph Hughes (“Mr. Hughes”) hit a parked car which caused his car to burst into flames. As a result of this accident, Mr. Hughes lost his life. Mr. Hughes’s parents, Joseph and Cherryn Burkette, filed a wrongful death claim, naming General Motor, LLC. and Banner Chevrolet as defendants. The Burkettes claimed that their son died as a result of the defendants’ negligence.

In response, the defendants argued that Mr. Burkette could not be part of the wrongful death suit. The defendants noted that the Burkettes and decedent did not share a last name. Ms. Burkette asserted that Mr. Burkette was Mr. Hughes’ biological father and that she was his biological mother. Ms. Burkette explained that she was in a relationship with Mr. Burkette while she was married to Jerome Hughes and that her son’s last name only reflected Ms. Burkette’s marital status at the time of Mr. Hughes’s birth.

oil-refinery-1240489-1024x599Often, the facts of a lawsuit are unclear. One strategy that lawyers often use to prove their version of events is to use an expert witness to corroborate their side’s story. Expert witnesses are individuals who possess knowledge in a field or area that the average person knows little to nothing about. Frequently, both sides in a lawsuit end up utilizing experts who often times have differing opinions about the facts surrounding the lawsuit. But how does a judge or jury determine which expert is correct? Recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana addressed these questions in a workers’ compensation case.

David Allensworth worked for two different companies, Gulf South Systems (“GSS”) and Grand Isle Shipyard (“GIS”) as a cleaner, cleaning storage tanks containing gasoline, crude oil, diesel fuel, and condensate. One day, Mr. Allensworth visited an urgent care center with complaints of abdominal pain and weight loss. A CT scan revealed a large abdominal mass which was later diagnosed as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is toxic exposure to benzene with is contained in crude oil and gasoline. Mr. Allensworth filed a lawsuit against GSS and GIS for workers’ compensation benefits claiming that his exposure to benzene while working for the companies caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Workers’ compensation pays for an employee’s medical expenses and lost wages when an employee is injured on the job.

At trial, Mr. Allensworth submitted the sworn statement of Dr. Jack Saux as an expert oncologist. Dr. Saux concluded that Mr. Allensworth’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was caused by toxic exposure to benzene, which most likely happened when Mr. Allensworth cleaned his employers’ storage tanks. GIS and GSS countered with its own medical expert, who testified that though there is some association between benzene and lymphoma, there is no evidence that benzene exposure caused Mr. Allensworth’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Workers’ Compensation Judge (“WCJ”) concluded that Mr. Allensworth did not prove that his disease was a result of his employment. In doing so, the WCJ noted that Dr. Saux based his opinion on Mr. Allensworth’s statement in which Mr. Allensworth claimed he only wore a regular shirt and overalls while cleaning the tank. It was based only on this statement, and not on an examination, that Dr. Saux concluded that exposure to benzene from Mr. Allensworth’s job likely caused Mr. Allensworth’s disease. The WCJ also noted that the testimony of GIS and GSS’s expert stated that Mr. Allensworth did wear protective equipment when cleaning the tanks.

pollution-1-1235575-1024x851A common tactic of defendants is to attempt to remove a case from state court to Federal Court if there is the slightest indication that such removal might be proper.  Depending on the case, however, it may be more advantageous to a plaintiff to keep the case in state court.  Without even concerning the merits of the case, a battle ensues costing time and money.  In any case, where the Federal Government is even remotely involved, removal will likely be an issue.   How can a plaintiff successfully keep their lawsuit in state court when the Federal Government is involved?  Recent Louisiana asbestos litigation provides at least one way.   

Silas B. Bishop, Joseph L. Dennis, and Lawrence R. Craig worked for many years on different ships as merchant mariners. At least one of the ships that the Plaintiffs worked on was owned by the United States Navy.  United States Naval Ships are operated by civilian contractors who hire merchant mariners such as the Plaintiffs.  The Plaintiffs alleged that they were each exposed to asbestos while on board the various ships and suffered serious injuries and/or death as a result.   At the time of the lawsuit, Mr. Bishop and Mr. Dennis were deceased and their estates were represented by William E. Bartel, who is named as the Plaintiff-Appellee in the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Louisiana State Court under the Jones Act and general maritime law.  Plaintiffs sued multiple parties, including “Federal Officer Defendants” who were companies operating the Navy Vessels where Plaintiffs worked.  The Plaintiffs claimed that the injuries they suffered were due to their employers’ failure to warn them about the dangers of asbestos; failure to provide training about using products that contained asbestos; and the failure of their employers to adopt procedures to safely install and remove asbestos.  The Defendants moved to remove the case to Federal Court based on the Federal Officer Removal Statute.   

Pursuant to Federal Officer Removal Statute at  28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), “a lawsuit against or directed to … any officer (or any person acting under that officer) of the United States or of any agency thereof, in an official or individual capacity, for or relating to any act under color of such office” may be removed to federal court.  Defendants must show that they are “persons” as defined in the statute; that they acted under the direction of a person working for the federal government; and that there is a relationship between the defendant’s actions and what the plaintiff claims. See Winters v. Diamond Shamrock Chem. Co., 149 F.3d 387, 398-400 (5th Cir. 1998). The issue, in this case, was whether there was a causal nexus, or connection, between the Plaintiff’s claims and the Defendant’s actions.   

swat-1-1314751-1024x768Cases with multiple defendants and multiple claims are typically complex and slow to resolve.  Not all claims apply to all defendants, not all defenses apply to all claims or parties, etc.  Furthermore, some defendants possess certain immunities which may allow for the dismissal of certain claims against that defendant before the remaining claims are even addressed. What happens if one claim is dismissed, the plaintiff wants to appeal that dismissal, yet the entire matter is still pending? This is the subject of a recent wrongful death case out of Metairie, Louisiana.  

Maria Ibanez Sarasino, was shot and killed by a convicted felon, Miguel Rojas, while he was out on parole. Mr. Rojas was convicted of attempted second-degree murder, and his brother arranged for him to stay with Mrs. Sarasino and her husband. During the months after Mr. Rojas’ release, conflicts between him and Mrs. Sarasino’s family arose, resulting in Rojas punching Mrs. Sarasino’s daughter, Maria, in the face and giving her a black eye. Mr. Rojos’ brother Alphonso, reported to the Kenner Police Department that Mr. Rojas had stolen a handgun from his apartment.  Alphonso and Maria lodged a complaint with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office about Mr. Rojas’ threats against the Sarasino family. Maria claimed that Mr. Rojas stole her husband’s gun and was threatening to shoot her and her family. The investigating officer was unable to locate Mr. Rojas so he relayed the details of the investigation to the First District and took no further action.  Approximately two weeks later, Mr. Rojas’ parole officer was notified by the sheriff’s office of the complaints regarding Mr. Rojas, and attempted to locate Mr. Rojas with no luck.  A week following, the Kenner Police Department issued a warrant for Mr. Rojas for theft of a firearm. Four days after the warrant was issued, Mr. Rojas went to the Sarasino residence and shot and killed Mrs. Sarasino.

The surviving family members filed a wrongful death suit against the State of Louisiana, through the Department of Corrections, the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, the Parish of Jefferson, the Chief of the Kenner Police Department, and the City of Kenner.  Against the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Newell Normand, the Sarasino family specifically claimed Sheriff Normand breached his duty to expeditiously execute the warrant on Mr. Rojas.  They further alleged that Sheriff Normand failed to protect the public from a known danger by failing to timely arrest Mr. Rojas and by failing to properly protect the victim. Sheriff Normand filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the Plaintiffs could not prove that he was negligent for failing to adequately protect Mrs. Sarasino, and that he was entitled to summary judgment on this issue because he was immune from liability pursuant to the discretionary immunity rule. The Judicial District Court for the Parish of Jefferson granted the motion for summary judgment on the claim for failing to protect Mrs. Sarasino reasoning that Sheriff Normand and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department were shielded by immunity. The Plaintiffs appealed to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.  

hard-hat-area-1455626-1-1024x732Getting seriously injured on the job is always a terrible experience, but what if it is unclear for purposes of a lawsuit who you even work for? You know that someone owes you compensation for your injuries, but in this recent case out of Natchitoches Parish that “someone” may not be where your employment application was filed.  

International Paper Company (“IPCO”) hired Turner Industries Group, LLC (“Turner”) to perform maintenance work on IPCO’s recovery boiler.  Garred Whotte, an employee of Turner, was sent to IPCO to construct scaffolding necessary to the maintenance work. While on the job, his feet started burning, resulting in chemical burns to his feet and ankles. Mr. Whotte brought a personal injury lawsuit against IPCO. IPCO filed a successful motion for summary judgment arguing that it was immune from a personal injury lawsuit under the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act (“Act”) which limits recovery to the provisions of the Act. The Tenth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Natchitoches specifically found that Mr. Whotte was a “statutory employee” of IPCO at the time of the injury limiting Mr. Whotte to workers’ compensation benefits. Mr. Whotte appealed to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.

The remedies provided to a worker under the Act are the exclusive remedy an employee can seek against his employer or principal pursuant to La. R.S. 23:1032(A)(1)(a).  A “principal” is a person who has contracted with another to perform work as part of the business at the time of worker’s injury.  The principal, as the statutory employer, is protected from tort lawsuits and given the protections of the Act as the exclusive remedy for those injured on the job.  La. R.S. 23:1061.  In the event of a contract between the principal and employer, the contract must contain language recognizing the principal as the statutory employer.  Language to this effect creates the presumption of a statutory employer, however, this presumption can be overcome only by showing that the work is not an integral part of or essential to the ability of the principal to generate their goods, products, or services.  

cat-in-jail-1369156-1024x683Navigating the criminal justice system is a scary, stressful and, often harrowing experience for anyone, but these feelings are generally exacerbated when a defendant is mentally ill. The unfortunate story of Willie Warren Harper follows as an illustration of the litigation that can arise in these situations. After being arrested for theft in 1984, Mr. Harper was admitted to Feliciana Forensic Facility (FFF), a part of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and, when deemed to no longer be a danger to himself or others, was to be released on the condition that the Orleans Inmate Treatment Service (OITS) would help him enter a halfway home and file for social security and welfare. However, he remained in DHH’s legal custody until 1997.

In December of 1997, his attorney filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus (a formal, legal recourse against illegal detention). After he was released, he filed a claim for illegal confinement but passed away in 2003. His two children filed a Petition for Damages against the State of Louisiana, through DHH, to continue their father’s lawsuit and remedy the wrongs perpetrated against their father.

The jury at the Trial Court found for Mr. Harper and his children and awarded them $4,050,000 collectively. DHH appealed the Trial Court’s decision claiming numerous errors.  Two of the issues on appeal concerning the monetary amount were both overturned by the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal and the award was reduced.

pills-on-table-1512519-1024x683In cases involving negligence on behalf of medical personnel, expert testimony is often needed to establish the standard of care that was breached by the party being sued. An expert’s testimony will be admitted based on its relevance to the facts at hand as well as the experts level of knowledge regarding the specific topic. Recently, the First Circuit Court of Appeal had to determine whether or not expert testimony was properly admitted and whether or not from that testimony alone the court could find by a preponderance of the evidence for the Plaintiff. These issues arise in the context of a lawsuit brought by Robert and Ruth McGregor individually and on behalf of the deceased Donald McGregor against Hospice Care of Louisiana in Baton Rouge for negligence in their failure to fill a partial prescription for the deceased.

The deceased Donald McGregor had terminal metastatic prostate cancer and was being treated by a doctor from 1997 till his death July 21, 2002. In April of 2002, Mr. McGregor was enrolled as a patient of Hospice of Baton Rouge (Hospice) when he was no longer able to visit his previous doctor’s office. From that point on his previous doctor relied on reports from the Hospice Nurses to make determinations regarding the prescription of pain medication to Mr. McGregor. in July of 2002, his doctor prescribed various pain medications for long and short term pain. In July of 2002, Mr. McGregor’s doctor wrote a partial fill prescription for 40 morphine suppositories 20 of which were to be filled on Friday and the other 20 to be filled the following Monday. McGregor’s doctor, however, instructed that if the pain worsened the nurses were to contact him or his partner and the on-call physician for the weekend in order to have the other 20 suppositories filled early.

On Sunday of the same weekend Robert McGregor, Mr. McGregor’s son called the on-call Hospice nurse in hysterics requesting that the remaining suppositories be delivered immediately while threatening the nurse’s life if she showed up without them. The nurse then informed Robert that in order for that to happen she would need to visit the home and assess Mr. McGregor’s condition before contacting the on-call physician about releasing the remaining suppositories to which Robert responded with more threats and a refusal of the assessment. The Nurse then informed her supervisors of the situation and they advised her to let Robert know that Mr. McGregor from then on was released from Hospice care. Robert still in hysterics then called the on call doctor directly regarding the situation of his father’s discharge from Hospice care to which the on call doctor agreed with Hospice’s decision because it would be best for Mr. McGregor to be treated directly by her in the hospital. Later that day Mr. McGregor was brought to the hospital where he passed away that evening.

chest-xray-1526779-1024x1004If you are injured at work, it is imperative that you follow the appropriate procedures under workers’ compensation law to ensure that you are fully and fairly compensated for your injuries. A failure to properly report or address your injuries can result in a lesser payment or no payment at all. It is also important to keep your place of employment apprised of your injuries and treatment, and written records of your contact, so that if it becomes necessary to bring an action against your employer you have sufficient evidence to support your position. A recent case of the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal is illustrative.

On November 2010, Plaintiff Jason Montou was injured in Calcasieu Parish while employed with Boise, the Defendant. He immediately made a report of his injuries to his supervisor per company policy but referred originally only to a shoulder injury. He was sent home and told to follow up with a doctor if necessary. He went through with a doctor’s appointment a few days later and was treated for his shoulder. He was also referred to a separate doctor for treatment of a back injury. The medical records indicate that Plaintiff complained of arm, shoulder, and back pain as early as December of 2010 and March of 2011. Plaintiff’s doctors disagreed about when it was appropriate for him to return to work. He eventually stopped treatment with one of the doctors because his employer would not approve his MRI tests. In October of 2013, Defendant sent Plaintiff to a different doctor, who determined that Plaintiff could return to work immediately and that there was no connection between his neck and back injuries and the work accident. The company then immediately terminated Plaintiff’s benefits.

Worker’s compensation cases are unique because those with claims against their employer must file a claim with the Office of Workers’ Compensation before proceeding to court. In this case, the Office determined the Plaintiff was still injured and needed benefits. It ordered the Defendant to accept Plaintiff’s injuries as compensable, approve the MRIs requested by his doctors, and reimburse him for existing treatment. The Plaintiff proceeded to court because the Office of Workers’ Compensation chose not to award him penalties and attorney fees.