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Louisiana Court Holds Doctrine of Contra Non Valentem Does Not Suspend Prescriptive Period of Claim Against Automobile Insurance Company

In a recent case, the Fourth District Court of Appeal addressed whether the prescriptive period had tolled for a plaintiff seeking uninsured motorist benefits from his insurance company.  Louisiana law provides a two-year prescription period for uninsured motorist claims, requiring actions for damages stemming from motor vehicle accidents to be brought within two years from the date of the accident resulting in damages. The court examined the plaintiff’s claim that due to Hurricane Isaac, he was prevented from timely filing his petition for damages.

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Joshua Felix, Jr., brought a claim against Safeway Insurance Company of Louisiana, his alleged uninsured motorist insurer. Mr. Felix contended that he had been driving a vehicle that was rear-ended by an uninsured motorist on May 26, 2011. In August 2012, the courts were closed for three days due to Hurricane Isaac. Mr. Felix’s petition was filed on May 29, 2013.

Safeway filed an answer and a peremptory exception of prescription, based on Louisiana’s two-year prescription period for uninsured motorist claims.  They argued Mr. Felix filed his case three days after the two-year anniversary of the motor vehicle accident, and it was therefore barred.

Mr. Felix alleged the doctrine of contra non valentem, contending that prescription had been suspended because the courts were closed for three days due to Hurricane Isaac, and his claim was not prescribed. This doctrine includes a category covering situations such as court closures due to natural disasters. The trial court sustained Safeway’s peremptory exception of prescription, dismissing Mr. Felix’s suit with prejudice. Mr. Felix appealed.

On appeal, the court explained prescription is a procedural way to dismiss an action that is time-barred. It is the defendant’s burden to prove prescription unless the facts within the plaintiff’s petition demonstrate the claim is prescribed, and then the plaintiff must negate prescription.

Contra non valentem is considered a judicially created exception to statutory prescription.  It is a doctrine that is applied in exceptional circumstances.  Since it is a legal question, on appeal, the issue of prescription is reviewed de novo.  The appellate court stated they can take judicial notice of the court closure dates in the Louisiana Supreme Court’s website to help determine the legal issues.

The court made clear that the two-year peremptory exception of prescription applies, and the doctrine of contra non valentem can suspend the prescriptive period.  Here, the petition was prescribed because it was filed a day late, and Mr. Felix bore the burden of negating prescription. He alleged that contra non valentem suspends prescription due to court closures.

Contra non valentem applies when the possibility of acting was impossible, and it requires a case-by-case determination. The court stated the purpose of the doctrine was to protect litigants’ legal rights following the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina.

The rule is that the plaintiff must show that, in addition to the occurrence of a catastrophe, there was a factual impediment to filing the lawsuit. The closure of all courts due to a hurricane is not a legal cause supporting the category of contra non valentem.  In a distinguishable case, the effects of Hurricane Katrina were still being felt when the prescriptive period ran, and the court found a factual impediment caused the delay of the filing of a lawsuit.

Here, Mr. Felix relied on the existence of Hurricane Isaac, in the middle of the prescriptive period, in support of suspending prescription. Contra non valentem is only to be applied in exceptional cases, and since Mr. Felix had not shown that prescription was suspended based on the doctrine, the general computation of timing rules applied.  In this case, the days during which the courts were closed were included in the computation of the two-year prescriptive period.

At Lavis Law, we represent individuals in their claims against insurance companies.  Our office provides a free consultation and can be reached by calling 866-558-9151 or using our online form.

More Blog Posts:

Louisiana Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of Car Accident Victim Receiving Maximum Coverage From Insurance Company, Louisiana Insurance Lawyer Blog, November 24, 2015

Louisiana Appeals Court Holds Plaintiff Has Burden of Proving His Entitlement to Recovery Under Uninsured Motorist Coverage, Louisiana Insurance Lawyer Blog, August 25, 2015

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