Punitive Damages in Louisiana

Louisiana allows punitive damages only in very limited circumstances against insurers. The limited circumstances under which persons can recover are set out at La. R.S. 22:658, which provides as follows:

§658. Payment and adjustment of claims, policies other than life and health and accident; personal vehicle damage claims; penalties; arson-related claims suspension
A. (1) All insurers issuing any type of contract, other than those specified in R.S. 22:656, R.S. 22:657, and Chapter 10 of Title 23 of the Louisiana Revised Status of 1950, shall pay the amount of any claim due any insured within thirty days after receipt of satisfactory proofs of loss from the insured or any party in interest.

(2) All insurers issuing any type of contract, other than those specified in R.S. 22:656, R.S. 22:657, and Chapter 10 of Title 23 of the Louisiana Revised Status of 1950, shall pay the amount of any third party property damage claim and of any reasonable medical expenses claim due any bona fide third party claimant within thirty days after written agreement of settlement of the claim from any third party claimant.

(3) Except in the case of catastrophic loss, the insurer shall initiate loss adjustment of a property damage claim and of a claim for reasonable medical expenses within fourteen days after notification of loss by the claimant. In the case of catastrophic loss, the insurer shall initiate loss adjustment of a property damage claim within thirty days after notification of loss by the claimant. Failure to comply with the provisions of this Paragraph shall subject the insurer to the penalties provided in R.S. 22:1220.

(4) All insurers shall make a written offer to settle any property damage claim within thirty days after receipt of satisfactory proofs of loss of that claim.

B. (1) Failure to make such payment within thirty days after receipt of such satisfactory written proofs and demand therefor, as provided in R.S. 22:658 (A)(1), or within thirty days after written agreement or settlement as provided in R.S. 22:658 (A) (2) when such failure is found to be arbitrary, capricious, or without probable cause, shall subject the insurer to a penalty, in addition to the amount of the loss, of ten percent damages on the amount found to be due from the insurer to the insured, or one thousand dollars, whichever is greater, payable to the insured, or to any of said employees, together with all reasonable attorney fees for the prosecution and collection of such loss, or in the event a partial payment of tender has been made, ten percent of the difference between the amount paid or tendered and the amount found to be due and all reasonable attorney fees for the prosecution and collection of such amount.

(2) The period set herein for payment of losses resulting from fire and the penalty provisions for nonpayment within the period shall not apply where the loss from fire was arson related and the state fire marshal or other state or local investigative bodies have the loss under active arson investigation. The provisions relative to time of payment and penalties shall commence to run upon certification of the investigating authority that there is no evidence of arson or the there is insufficient evidence to warrant further proceedings.

(3) The provisions relative to suspension of payment due to arson shall not apply to a bona fide lender which holds a valid recorded mortgage on the property in question.

(4) Whenever a property damage claim is on a personal vehicle owned by the third party claimant and as a direct consequence of the inactions of the insurer and the third party claimant’s loss the third party claimant is deprived of use of the personal vehicle for more than five working days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, the insurer responsible for payment of the claim shall pay, to the extent legally responsible, for reasonable expenses incurred by the third party claimant in obtaining alternative transportation for the entire period of time during which the third party claimant is without the use of his personal vehicle. Failure to make such payment within thirty days after receipt of adequate written proof and demand therefor, when such failure is found to be arbitrary, capricious, or without probable cause shall subject the insurer to, in addition to the amount of such reasonable expenses incurred, a reasonable penalty not to exceed ten percent of such reasonable attorneys’ fees for the collection of such expenses.

C. (1) All claims brought by insureds, worker’s compensation claimants, or third parties against an insurer shall be paid by check or draft of the insurer to the order of the claimant to whom payment of the claim is due pursuant to the policy provisions, or his attorney, or upon direction of such claimant to one specified; provided, however, that the check or draft shall be made jointly to the claimant and the employer when the employer has advanced the claims payment to the claimant. Such check or draft shall be paid jointly until the amount of the advanced claims payment has been recovered by the employer.
(2) no insurer shall intentionally or unreasonably delay, for more than three calendar days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays, after presentation for collection, the processing of any properly executed and endorsed check or draft issued in settlement of an insurance claim.

(3) Any insurer violating this subsection shall pay the insured or claimant a penalty of two hundred dollars or fifteen percent of the face amount of the check or draft, whichever is greater.

D. (1) When making a payment incident to a claim, no insurer shall require that as a condition to such payment, repairs be made to a motor vehicle, including window glass repairs or replacement, in a particular place or shop or by a particular entity. Any insurer violating the provisions of this Subsection shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars for each offense.

(2) A violation of this Subsection shall constitute an additional ground, under R.S. 22:1173 [fn1], for the commissioner to refuse to issue a license or to suspend or revoke a license issued to any agent, broker, or solicitor to sell insurance in this state.

Similarly, the right of recovery against insurers includes claims settlement practices abuses which give rise to punitive damages under the provisions of La. R.S. 22:1220:

§ 1220. Good faith duty; claims settlement practices; cause of action; penalties
A. An insurer, including but not limited to a foreign line and surplus line insurer, owes to his insured a duty of good faith and fair dealing. The insurer has an affirmative duty to adjust claims fairly and promptly and to make a reasonable effort to settle claims with the insured or the claimant, or both. Any insurer who breaches these duties shall be liable for any damages sustained as a result of the breach.

B. Any one of the following acts, if knowingly committed or performed by an insurer, constitutes a breach of the insurer’s duties imposed in Subsection A:

(1) misrepresenting pertinent facts or insurance policy provisions relating to any coverages at issue.

(2) Failing to pay a settlement within thirty days after an agreement is reduced to writing.

(3) Denying coverage or attempting to settle a claim on the basis of an application which the insurer knows was altered without notice to, or knowledge or consent of, the insured.
(4) Misleading a claimant as to the applicable prescriptive period.

(5) Failing to pay the amount of any claim due any person insured by the contract within sixty days after receipt of satisfactory proof of loss from the claimant when such failure is arbitrary, capricious, or without probable cause.

C. In addition to any general or special damages to which a claimant is entitled for breach of the imposed duty, the claimant may be awarded penalties assessed against the insurer in an amount not to exceed two times the damages sustained or five thousand dollars, whichever is greater. Such penalties, if awarded, shall not be used by the insurer in computing either past or prospective loss experience for the purpose of setting rates or making rate filings.

D. The provisions of this Section shall not be applicable to claims made under health and accident insurance policies.

E. Repealed by Acts 1997, NO. 949, § 2.

F. The Insurance Guaranty Association Fund, as provided in R.S. 22:1375 et seq., shall not be liable for any special damages awarded under the provision of this draft as Division could have had rights against insurer for reimbursement of medical services furnished to insured. Nelson v. Ardoin, App. 3 Cir. 1979, 367 So. 32d 1233.

Louisiana jurisprudence has generally held that the punitive damages available under both statutes may not be recovered, but instead an election of remedies must be made by the plaintiff. Calogero v. Safeway Insurance Company of Louisiana, No. 99-1625 (LA S.Ct. 1/19/00) 753 So.2d 170 (La. 2000). This assumes, of course, that a plaintiff has the right to recover under either statute.

The claims adjustment period of thirty (30) or sixty (60) days begins with notice and a proof of claim. The specific allegations in pleadings and the assessment of the factual basis upon which to base a claim for punitives under these statutes has lead many insurers to file motions for summary judgment on these claims early in the litigation. State Farm for instance, has instructed its counsel to file motions for summary judgment without delay on any petition where the allegation for punitives has been made.

The purpose of this paper is not to review that which all of you are familiar with but to point out that neither 22:658, nor 1220 provides that either is the exclusive means for recovery where another set of punitive statutes may be available.

For instance, the punitive damage’s laws in the state of Illinois may well apply to activities of State Farm and Allstate Insurance Companies which find their home offices located in Illinois. Seeking to apply Illinois punitive damages under the conflicts of laws principles has been found to be meritorious in several states. In Louisiana, there is no reported case on this issue, but it was recently raised in a fire case we handled and served to provide additional leverage to promote settlement.

The theory is the application of Louisiana’s general conflicts of laws statue enacted in its current form in 1991, and now found at La. Civil Code Articles 3515 to 3549, comprising Book 4 of the Civil Code. The comments to the 1991 changes in the conflicts of laws principle show that “the objective of the choice of law process…. is to identify ‘the state whose policies would be most seriously impaired if its law were not applied to that (particular) issue,’ that is, the state which in light of its relationship to the parties and the dispute and its policies rendered pertinent by that relationship, would bear the most serious legal, social, economic, and other consequences, if its laws were not applied to that issue.”

You should note that this is not a governmental interest analysis or a reference to the analysis based upon interstate competition. It is instead identified as a means of problems resolution by promoting interstate cooperation in avoiding conflicts. Pertinent to the commentators was the objective that “the choice of law process should strive for ways to minimize impairment of the interests of all of the involved states, rather than to maximize the interests of one state at the expense of the interests of the other state.” See Symeonides, “Problems and Dilemmas in Codifying the Choice of Law for Torts: the Louisiana Experience in Comparative Perspective”, 38 Am. J. Comp. L. 431, 436 – 41(1990).

Beginning with identification of the resources of statutory interpretation in each state, the commentator suggests then, an evaluation of the “strength and pertinence” of such policies in view of “the relationship of each state to the parties and the dispute.”

Finally, the comments provide that the evaluation of state policies is also to be conducted “in the light of …. the …. needs of interstate and international systems.” It is noteworthy that the commentators indicate that “this admonition goes beyond the self-evident requirement of complying with the limits prescribed by the federal constitution for state choice of law decisions. See, e.g., Allstate Insurance Company v. Hague, 449 U.S. 302 (1981).

The analysis of conflicts is in terms of issues rather than cases. One issue in a case may be governed by the laws of a particular state, although all other issues are governed by the laws of the forum state. This issue by issue analysis is generally referred to by its French name of “dépeçage”. An example of the issue by issue interpretation with respect to damage claims is seen in Shell Oil Company v. Hollywood Marine, Inc., No. 97-106, 97-611 (La. App. 5th Cir. 10/15/97) 701 So.2d 1038, which held that Texas law, rather than Louisiana law, would apply to govern the interpretation of a liability insurance policy because Texas had compelling interest in regulating its insurance policies contracted for in Texas and issued to companies doing business in Texas, although the injury occurred in Louisiana.