Summary Judgment Rules Brought to Light in Tort Case

A Louisiana volunteer firefighter, Rodney Champagne, who works for the Duson Volunteer Fire Department was injured around June 28, 2010, while testing fire hoses at the fire department. After the hose wall blew out, the hose struck Mr. Champagne in the head, ultimately causing permanent mental injuries. The contact also fractured his skull. In response, Champagne and his wife filed a tort suit, both individually and on behalf of their minor child.

A tort is basically just a wrongful act that someone does that causes them to be legally liable. These acts are not necessarily illegal, but rather, are acts that cause someone else to suffer loss or be harmed unfairly. In this case, the plaintiffs are claiming that the hose wall blowout that led to Champagne’s head injuries is the tortious act for which someone should be legally liable.

The plaintiffs filed suit against several defendants, but two in particular, Lavergne (another fire fighter at the same department) and AAIC (Lavergne’s insurer), tried to get a motion for summary judgment passed to excuse them from the suit. The motion for summary judgment argued that Lavergne was immune from tort liability because he is a co-employee of Champagne.

The trial court denied Lavergne and AAIC’s motion for summary judgment, and the defendants (Lavergne and AAIC) appealed the decision in order to get it reviewed by the appellate court. When reviewing a motion for summary judgment in this manner, the proper standard of review is de novo. This means that the appellate court who is reviewing whether the motion for summary judgment was appropriately granted or not by the trial court looks at the motion fresh as if the trial court had not already reviewed it.

Determining whether or not the motion for summary judgment should be granted in this case is purely a question of law and centers on whether the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act allows fellow volunteer firefighters immunity from tort liability. Two sections of the Act in particular, 23:1032 and 23:1036, are in question. Section 23:1032 extends tort immunity to co-employees, but section 23:1036 is ambiguous. The defendants want the court to look at the legislative intent behind the two sections, and they argue that doing this will show that the Act is intended to limit a firefighter’s remedy to workers’ compensation. This, they argue, would make a co-employee immune from liability.

Champagne and his wife, the plaintiffs, argued that the Act only provides for immunity to the fire company and that it should not be read in a way that would suggest this immunity should extend to fellow employees. If the legislature wanted the law to include immunity for fellow employees, the plaintiffs argued that it would have clearly said that in the law. The trial court agreed with the plaintiffs, stating that it could not simply rewrite the law or add to it, but that it must take the law at face value. If the law needs to be changed, it is up to the legislature to change the law.

While the appellate court ultimately realizes that interpreting the law to allow fellow employees to be liable for tortious acts might make people less likely to volunteer, the court acknowledges, just like the trial court, that the law does not clearly exclude co-employees from liability. Therefore, they agree it is up to the legislature to change the law, but for now, the co-employee can be held liable for the tortious act.

This case is just one example of how important it is to have an in-depth understanding of the law and of how difficult laws can be to understand.

In order to make sure that you get the best representation possible to help you in a tort or personal injury case, contact Berniard Law Firm at (504) 521-6000. An attorney that specializes in personal injury and tort cases will be happy to help you understand the relevant law and will make sure to apply that law in the best way possible to help you recover appropriately.

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