Recently, the Fourth Circuit reviewed a case involving injuries sustained in a boating accident. The issue before the appellate court was whether the plaintiffs had met their burden of showing a genuine issue of material fact remained on the issue of liability for the defendant. The defendant argued that the plaintiffs could not show there was solidary liability with an originally named defendant and that the claims against them were therefore prescribed.
Approximately 15 years ago, Raymond Meladine, his wife, and his children were fishing on a boat early in the morning when they struck a submerged, unknown object beneath Lake Hermitage and suffered injuries. The Meladines brought a personal injury lawsuit against six companies, claiming that each owned or operated an oil and gas production platform and pipeline in the Lake Hermitage area. The Meladines alleged that their 18-foot boat hit an unmarked gas pipeline and that the defendants were liable because they failed to mark, maintain, or remove the pipeline or warn of the hazards it posed. After they voluntarily dismissed without prejudice their claims against all six original defendants, Chevron USA and Stone Energy remained.
The Meladines then named Jefferson Lake as a defendant on the ground that it owned or operated the pipeline. They also named Plaquemines Parish Government on the ground that it was liable as the owner of the water bottom.
Jefferson Lake argued that it was not named as a defendant until six years after the accident. They filed an exception of prescription. Jefferson Lake then moved for summary judgment on the ground that the claims were prescribed because the Meladines could not show that Jefferson Lake owned or controlled the pipeline or was solidarily liable with an originally named defendant. The Meladines then settled with Plaquemines Parish Government and dismissed their claims against them. The trial court granted Jefferson Lake’s motion for summary judgment, and the Meladines appealed that judgment.
The appellate court stated on appeal that when reviewing a summary judgment motion, the moving party bears the burden of showing an absence of factual support for one or more elements of the claim. If the non-moving party cannot produce factual support showing he can meet his evidentiary burden of proof at trial, there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the motion for summary judgment must be granted.
Addressing whether the claim against Jefferson Lake was prescribed, the court stated that unless it is shown that Jefferson Lake was solidarily liable with an originally named defendant, the petition was prescribed. The claim was brought six years from the date of the accident, and the prescriptive period was one year from the date of the injury or damage.
The court stated that procedurally, Jefferson Lake had moved for summary judgment on the ground that the Melndines could not show a solidary obligation between Jefferson Lake and an originally named defendant. The burden then shifted to the plaintiffs, the Meladines, to produce evidence showing they could meet their evidentiary burden. This required demonstrating that Jefferson Lake owned or controlled the pipe under the Meladines’ boat, such that it had a duty to remove or warn of the hazard. As plaintiffs, the Meladines also needed to show that Jefferson Lake breached its duty, causing their damages. To defeat the exception of prescription, the Meladines needed to show further that Jefferson Lake had a solidary obligation, also borne by Gulf Oil.
The appellate court noted the deposition testimony of a Captain who claimed that after the 1970s, Jefferson Lake concluded its sulfur operations, and he saw “drill pipe” on the shore of Lake Hermitage. The Captain stated that within 15 years, the pipes were submerged by coastal erosion. He did not know to whom the drill pipe belonged, nor did he know where the Meladines’ accident took place. The appellate court stated that the Captain’s testimony was too speculative to suggest a connection between the object struck by the Meladines’ boat and Jefferson Lake. This evidence did not raise a genuine issue of fact as to whether Jefferson Lake owed a duty to the plaintiffs regarding that object.
Next, the appellate court analyzed evidence of an agreement referring to a temporary assignment of a portion of a mineral lease. Gulf Oil held a 50 percent share of the mineral rights and assigned its rights to drill and produce sulfur. The court stated that the agreement gave Jefferson Lake the authority to drill for sulfur instead of Gulf Oil but did not indicate that a joint venture existed between the two. There was no evidence that the pipeline was used for sulfur as opposed to gas, or that Jefferson Lake or Gulf Oil owned or controlled the pipeline.
In conclusion, the appellate court held that the evidence in opposition to Jefferson Lake’s motion failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment. The court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Jefferson Lake, dismissing the Meladines’ claims.
The personal injury attorneys at Lavis Law represent injured Louisiana residents in their claims for compensation following an accident. Our office provides a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866.558.9151.
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