Maurice Fontenot and Susan Melton Fontenot v. Jarred Levar Stevens, Carl’s Rentals, and Republic Fire and Casualty Insurance Company

Maurice Fontenot and Susan Melton Fontenot v. Jarred Levar Stevens, Carl’s Rentals, and Republic Fire and Casualty Insurance Company
(April 2015)

Mike Sistrunk, Lynda Tafaro and Matt Garver succeeded on a Motion to Set Aside a JNOV as absolutely null on behalf of The Republic Group and its insureds. In May, 2013, a jury in the 14th Judicial District Court in Lake Charles returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff for $500,500.00. Plaintiff quickly filed a Motion for JNOV, the trial judge having pre-judged the case, opining in pre-trial conference that the case was valued at close to the $1 million insurance limits based solely on plaintiff’s $275,000.00 in past medical expenses. The Motion for JNOV was granted, and the jury’s award was raised to $1,075,417.90, resulting in an excess judgment against the insureds. Once the defendants’ Motion for New Trial on the JNOV and Motion to Recuse were denied, the trial judge then denied defendants’ appeal, concluding that appeal delays had run. The judge then abruptly resigned from the bench, and a judge pro tempore was appointed. McCranie, Sistrunk was then retained by The Republic Group as appellate counsel for all defendants.

 A thorough review of the record revealed that although a judgment had been signed granting the JNOV, the trial court had failed to sign and issue notice of a judgment on the jury’s verdict. Defendants filed a Motion to Set Aside the JNOV as absolutely null, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction to consider the Motion for JNOV as it was premature until the court issued notice of judgment on the jury’s verdict.

 The trial judge, pro tempore, denied the Motion to Set Aside, concluding that the judgment granting the Motion for JNOV contained sufficient language to constitute a judgment on the jury’s verdict, thus satisfying the requirements of La. C.C.P. arts. 1911, 1913 and 1916.

 The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal granted and docketed defendants’ application for supervisory writ. After oral argument, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded, agreeing with defendants that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider the Motion for JNOV as no judgment had been signed on the jury’s verdict. As, “the judgment granting the JNOV is null on its face,” no appeal delays had begun, and the trial court was ordered to enter judgment in conformity with the jury’s verdict. The JNOV was set aside and the jury’s verdict reinstated. It is paramount that the jury’s verdict be reduced to a signed judgment to start the delays for all post-trial motions and appeals. Thus, delays for post-trial motions and appeals will begin once the trial court issues notice of judgment on the jury’s verdict. In April, 2015, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously denied plaintiff’s writ application.