Ruffin v. Stewart and Associates, and Republic Vanguard Insurance Company
Mike Sistrunk and Devin Fadaol obtained a victory for Republic Vanguard Insurance Company’s (“Republic”) named insured, Byron Stewart, Sr. d/b/a Stewart and Associates Architectural Company (the “Company”), following a two-week jury trial in CDC/Orleans Parish, Louisiana. The lawsuit arose from a pedestrian-vehicle accident that occurred on May 26, 2010, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The plaintiff suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which commenced after head trauma resulting from a decades earlier criminal battery. On the day of the accident, Stewart, Sr. and Stewart Jr. left their home/office during work hours to retrieve the vehicle from a repair shop. Byron Stewart, Jr. was driving the vehicle when he lost control and struck the plaintiff. The vehicle was owned by Stewart, Sr., but it was used at times for business related activities and all expenses were paid by the Company. The plaintiff sought to hold the Company vicariously responsible for the acts of Stewart, Jr.
The Republic insurance policy contained language which allowed plaintiff to argue for coverage. For instance, simply using the vehicle “in furtherance of the business” or “in connection with the business” triggered coverage. Further, the plaintiff made allegations of negligent entrustment, as Byron Stewart, Jr. also had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The jury heard testimony that Stewart, Jr. may not have been taking his prescription anti-psychotic medication in the months leading up to the accident. The Company also faced excess exposure based on bad faith allegations and demands to pay the policy limits made before and during the trial.
The plaintiff claimed damages from a crushed leg, amputated toe, amputated leg, and colon removal. The plaintiff incurred $644,499.00 in past medical expenses and was hospitalized and/or under nursing home care since the 2010 accident. The judge gave the jury parts of the subject policy as jury charges instead of determining coverage as a matter of law. The jury verdict form provided the jury with three separate opportunities to find liability against the Company. Shortly before midnight on a Friday, the jury returned a verdict in the Company’s favor. The jury placed all fault for the accident on Stewart, Jr. in his personal capacity and Progressive Insurance Company, who had a separate personal policy on the vehicle. During closing arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney asked for approximately $3.5 million. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of $2,670,614.00, but found that plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages, which reduced the award by approximately $170,000.00. The jury also accepted a reduced life expectancy for the plaintiff’s life care plan because of his pre-existing schizophrenia and the testimony of the defense expert, Dr. John Thompson, who is a renowned neuropsychiatrist. The jury assessed 100% fault to Stewart, Jr. and Progressive Insurance Company, whose policy limits only complied with the state minimum. In closing argument, the plaintiff’s attorney and co-defendant’s counsel both pointed to the Company as the only responsible party.