In this wrongful death and survival action, the plaintiffs—Mary Jenkins, Donna Jenkins, and Dominique Jenkins—appeal from a judgment of the trial court granting summary judgments in favor of the defendants—Neftali Luevano Hernandez; AG Logistics, L.L.C. ("AG"); Cora-Texas Mfg Co., Inc. and Cora Texas Manufacturing Company, L.L.C. (collectively, "Cora Texas"); and National Fire and Marine Insurance Company ("National Fire"). For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's judgment.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
This wrongful death and survival action arises out of multiple vehicle collisions that occurred on December 17, 2013, beginning at approximately 4:30 a.m., on Louisiana Highway 1, about 1.10 miles north of Louisiana Highway 405 in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. The string of collisions began when Triana B. Albert, who was operating her vehicle in the southbound lane of Highway 1, stopped her vehicle in the middle of the two-lane highway after she drove into what witnesses described as a
A 2012 Volvo tractor truck hauling an empty sugar cane trailer operated by Michael D. Gouthier narrowly avoided colliding with Edwards' vehicle by steering partially onto the shoulder of the highway, stopping his tractor truck, and engaging his hazard lights. Thereafter, a 2014 Freightliner tractor truck hauling an empty sugar cane trailer that was operated by Neftali Luevano Hernandez came to a complete stop behind Gouthier. Hernandez engaged his emergency flashers and waited for the Gouthier tractor truck to proceed. Approximately two minutes later, Hernandez felt an impact from behind as Donald Jenkins struck Hernandez's trailer driving a 1991 Acura Integra. Jenkins tragically suffered fatal injuries and died at the scene of the crash.
Jenkins' wife, Mary Jenkins, and two adult children, Donna Jenkins and Dominique Jenkins, filed a petition for damages on December 17, 2014, against multiple defendants,
Thereafter, on June 6, 2018, Hernandez, AG, and Cora Texas filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that undisputed material facts established that Hernandez owed no duty to Jenkins; the actions of the defendants did not cause the accident, injury, and damages alleged by the plaintiffs; or alternatively, that the accident arose from a sudden emergency thereby precluding any allocation of fault
On June 7, 2018, National Fire filed a motion for summary judgment corresponding to the motion filed by Hernandez, AG, and Cora Texas. National Fire alleged that as the liability insurer of Hernandez's employer, AG, it was sued under the direct action statute, La. R.S. 22:1269. Accordingly, National Fire claimed entitlement to dismissal from the suit should the plaintiffs' claims against Hernandez, AG, and Cora Texas be dismissed on summary judgment.
The plaintiffs opposed the motions for summary judgment, arguing that Hernandez failed to comply with the duty set forth in La. R.S. 32:141 to move his stopped tractor truck off of the roadway when he had the opportunity to pull off onto the shoulder of the highway, thereby creating genuine issues of material fact, which precluded summary judgment in the defendants' favor.
Following a hearing on March 7, 2019, the trial court granted the defendants' summary judgments. On March, 26, 2019, the trial court signed a judgment in accordance with its ruling, granting summary judgment in favor of Hernandez, AG, Cora Texas, and National Fire, and dismissing all of the plaintiffs' claims against those defendants, with prejudice.
The plaintiffs now appeal, assigning three errors to the trial court's judgment: legal error as to the holding that Hernandez had no duty under La. R.S. 32:141 to pull over to the side of the road because he had the opportunity to do so and was stopped for more than a minute; the trial court improperly ruled on the element of breach despite the defendants not having presented that issue to the court on summary judgment; and the trial court improperly resolved disputed questions of fact in concluding that Hernandez acted reasonably.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A motion for summary judgment is a procedural device used to avoid a full-scale trial when there is no genuine issue of material fact.
The Code of Civil Procedure places the burden of proof on the party filing a motion for summary judgment. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(1). The mover can meet this burden by filing supporting documentary evidence consisting of pleadings, affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, certified medical records, stipulations, and admissions with the motion for summary judgment. La. C.C.P. art. 966(A)(4). The mover's supporting documentary evidence must prove the essential facts necessary to carry the mover's burden. Thus, in deciding a motion for summary judgment,
Once the mover properly establishes the material facts by its supporting documents, the mover does not have to negate all of the essential elements of the adverse party's claim, action, or defense. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(1);
Material facts are those that potentially insure or preclude recovery, affect the litigant's success, or determine the outcome of a legal dispute.
LAW AND DISCUSSION
The plaintiffs' claims in this case are based upon the defendants' alleged negligence. Louisiana courts have adopted a duty-risk analysis in determining whether to impose liability under the general negligence principles as set forth in the Civil Code.
In their petition for damages, the plaintiffs alleged that Hernandez breached the following duties: making an improper stop and creating an illegal obstruction of a public highway in violation of La. R.S. 32:141; failed to warn oncoming traffic of his obstruction of the lane of travel; failed to use proper lighting and/or warning signals; failed to properly maintain his vehicle under the driving conditions existing at the time of the accident; and failed generally to maintain the standard of care required in the above-described driving conditions.
Duty is a question of law and is a threshold issue in any negligence action. Simply put, the inquiry is whether a plaintiff has any law—statutory, jurisprudential, or arising from general principles of fault—to support the claim. In deciding whether to impose a duty in a particular case, the court must make a policy decision in light of the unique facts and circumstances presented. When no factual dispute exists and no credibility determinations are required, the legal question of the existence of a duty is appropriately addressed by summary judgment.
As the movers, the defendants had the burden of proof on summary judgment; however, because they would not bear the burden of proof at trial, they were required to point out to the trial court the absence of factual support for one or more elements of the plaintiffs' negligence claim.
The defendants argued that La. R.S. 32:141 does not apply to a motorist who does not obstruct the free flow of traffic, nor to situations when it is not "practicable" for the motorist to move his vehicle from the roadway. Specifically, the defendants averred that La. R.S. 32:141 has no application to a motorist such as Hernandez who is forced to stop his vehicle because the free flow of traffic had already been interrupted due to a traffic stoppage on account of congestion, construction, or as in this case, a vehicular accident. The defendants further argued that Hernandez did not have the opportunity to move his tractor truck onto the shoulder of the highway or employ external vehicular warning devices, such as reflective triangles or cones to warn oncoming traffic of his obstruction of the lane of travel because his vehicle was impacted only two minutes after he came to a stop.
It is well settled that when visibility is impaired by smoke, fog, or other unfavorable atmospheric conditions, a motorist must exercise care in the operation of his vehicle commensurate with the danger created by the conditions. He must reduce his speed and maintain a close lookout. As an extreme measure, when visibility is destroyed or greatly obscured, he must stop his vehicle until conditions permit him to resume travel in reasonable safety.
Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:141, titled "Stopping, standing, or parking
This statutory duty is designed to prevent the risk of confused or inattentive drivers colliding with such obstructions.
The term "park" as used in Section A of La. R.S. 32:141 does not comprehend or include a mere temporary or momentary stoppage, but rather connotes a stoppage with the intent of permitting the vehicle to remain standing for an appreciable length of time.
Whether stopping on the travelled portion of the roadway constitutes negligence depends upon the circumstances of each accident.
In support of their motions for summary judgment, the defendants submitted the verified and sworn pertinent traffic accident reports; photographs from the scene of the accidents; excerpts of the deposition of Louisiana State Trooper Samuel Lorio who investigated the accident at issue; and excerpts of the depositions of the drivers involved in the multiple accidents, including Torres, Hernandez, Donald Mistretta, Curtis J. Callegan, Scottie P. Smith, Cory C. Mouret, and Kendell Taylor.
Torres, who was rear-ended in the collisions that occurred in front of Hernandez, testified that he was able to view the fog before entering, and that as he did, he reduced his speed to ten miles per hour. Torres stated that he could only see three to five meters in front of his tractor truck due to the fog. Seconds after coming to a stop behind the preceding vehicle (Albert) and engaging his hazard lights, Torres felt an impact from behind, and then seconds later, felt a second impact.
Hernandez testified that he was able to view the fog before entering it, and accordingly, reduced his speed from 40 miles per hour to 15 miles per hours. Hernandez testified that he travelled three to five miles into the fog, which became thicker, so that he could only see approximately ten meters ahead of his truck. When Hernandez came upon Gouthier's stopped tractor truck that had engaged its hazard lights, Hernandez braked and came to a complete stop. Hernandez testified that he engaged his emergency hazard lights and waited for the truck in front of him to proceed along the highway. Two minutes later, Hernandez testified that he felt an impact from behind; a minute after that, he felt another impact, and moment later, felt a third, harder impact. Hernandez testified that he did not exit his vehicle nor put out warning cones or triangles because it was risky and he feared being run over due to the impaired visibility caused by the fog.
Trooper Lorio, who investigated and prepared the accident report, testified that the heavy fog affected all the motorists involved in the accident. Trooper Lorio stated that the fog he encountered was so heavy that he could not see past the bumper of his vehicle. Trooper Lorio further testified that in his investigation, he determined that Hernandez had come to a complete stop in the roadway due to the vehicle stopped in front of him because of the first set of collisions, and thereafter, Jenkins followed, and struck Hernandez in the rear of his trailer. Trooper Lorio found no skid marks to indicate that Jenkins had braked in any way prior to impacting with Hernandez.
Hernandez's testimony was corroborated by the deposition testimony of the other drivers involved in the accident. All of the drivers stated that while driving on the date and at the time in question, they entered a thick fog at this point on Louisiana Highway 1 that greatly reduced their visibility.
In opposition, the plaintiffs argued that Hernandez had a statutory duty under La. R.S. 32:141 to move his stopped vehicle off the roadway. The plaintiffs argued that having established an affirmative duty on the part of Hernandez to move his vehicle from the roadway, summary judgment cannot be granted on the
From our de novo review of the evidence submitted for purposes of the motions for summary judgment, we find that the defendants met their burden to point out the absence of factual support for one or more elements essential to the plaintiffs' negligence claim, but the plaintiffs have failed to come forward with evidence establishing that that there is a genuine issue as to material fact that Hernandez had a duty to move his tractor truck off of the highway.
Once confronted with the fog, Hernandez reacted by slowing his speed as to maintain control of his tractor truck and trailer and, upon seeing brake lights in front of him, brought his tractor truck to a complete stop and safely avoided a collision with the preceding vehicle. The testimony of the other drivers established that they too slowed their speed and applied their brakes once confronted with the zero-visibility conditions and that these motorists stopped or attempted to stop their vehicles on the roadway, although most were ultimately unsuccessful in avoiding collisions. Therefore, there is no conflicting evidence that once confronted with zero-visibility conditions, Hernandez exercised reasonable care by reducing his speed, maintaining a close lookout, stopping his tractor truck behind the stopped preceding vehicle, and engaging his hazard lights to warn oncoming motorists that he was stopped.
The evidence further demonstrates that in the two minutes he was stopped, Hernandez was assessing the traffic situation in front of him and believed that traffic would move forward, unaware of the two rear-end collisions involving three vehicles that had occurred in front of Gouthier's stopped tractor truck. Hernandez had no intention to remain stopped at his location for an appreciable length of time and was stopped for only two minutes before his
Furthermore, we note that the conflicting testimony submitted by the plaintiffs in opposition as to whether Jenkins first rear-ended Hernandez's trailer versus whether Jenkins was struck from behind by other vehicles, which then caused him to collide with Hernandez's trailer, does not create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Hernandez had a duty or breached a duty to move his stopped vehicle from the roadway.
Accordingly, because the plaintiffs failed to come forward with evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact establishing that Hernandez had a duty move his vehicle from the roadway under the undisputed facts of this case, the trial court was correct in finding that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment.
The trial court's March, 26, 2019 judgment is hereby affirmed. All costs of this appeal are assessed to the plaintiffs, Mary Jenkins, Donna Jenkins, and Dominique Jenkins.
BEFORE: McCLENDON, WELCH, AND HOLDRIDGE, JJ.
The plaintiffs also named Kendell Taylor (a following driver involved in multiple collisions) and his insurer, Shelter Mutual Insurance Company, as defendants. On joint motion of the plaintiffs, Taylor, and Shelter, the trial court dismissed all of the plaintiffs' claims against Taylor and Shelter, with prejudice, in a judgment signed on August 17, 2018.
The plaintiffs also sued Jenkins' liability and uninsured/underinsured carrier, Allstate Insurance Company. On motion of the plaintiffs, the trial court dismissed all of the plaintiffs' claims against Allstate, without prejudice, in a judgment signed on July 15, 2015.