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Boyett v. Redland Ins. Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

January 27, 2014

Clyde BOYETT, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants
v.
REDLAND INSURANCE CO., Defendant-Appellee.

Paul B. Wilkins (argued), Law Offices of Paul B. Wilkins, Columbia, LA, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Donald J. Armand, Jr. (argued), Attorney, Pettiette, Armand, Dunkelman, Woodley, Byrd & Cromwell, L.L.P., Shreveport, LA, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

Page 605

Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and DAVIS and WIENER, Circuit Judges.

WIENER, Circuit Judge:

In this diversity case, Plaintiffs-Appellants Clyde Boyett (" Boyett" ) and his wife, Annie Boyett (together, " the Boyetts" ), seek to recover damages for injuries Boyett incurred in an accident. Recovery is sought against Defendant-Appellee Redland Insurance Company (" Redland" ) under an insurance policy Redland issued to Boyett's employer, Boeuf River Ventures (" Boeuf River" ). The district court granted Redland's summary judgment motion after determining that the Boyetts could not avail themselves of uninsured motorist (" UM" ) benefits provided by Title 22, Section 1295 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes (" Section 1295" ). Although the district court concluded that Section 1295 applies to the North Carolina accident, it ruled that the offending uninsured machine, a forklift, was not a " motor vehicle" for purposes of that law. On appeal, the Boyetts contend that the district court erred in precluding UM coverage on the ground that the uninsured forklift that caused the accident was not a " motor vehicle." We hold that a forklift is a " motor vehicle" within the contemplation of Section 1295's identification of the uninsured or underinsured vehicle, and therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

The material facts in this case are simple. Boeuf River employed Boyett as a truck driver. In March 2009, Boyett was driving a flatbed tractor-trailer for Boeuf River hauling a load of lumber for delivery to Carolina Lumber & Brick, Ltd. (" Carolina Lumber" ) in North Carolina. Boeuf River maintained insurance on the tractor-trailer under a commercial lines policy which provided " Auto" [1] liability coverage. The policy, which was issued in Louisiana, did not include any provisions whatsoever relating to UM coverage. Neither was a waiver of statutory UM coverage executed pursuant to Louisiana law appended to the policy.[2] The parties agree that Boyett was an insured under that policy.

The accident occurred in North Carolina when, while an employee of Carolina Lumber was using a forklift to unload the lumber from the tractor-trailer, some of it fell, striking and severely injuring Boyett. He underwent surgery in an attempt to save his right foot. That surgery was unsuccessful, however, and he underwent further surgery to remove the lower portion of his right leg.

The Boyetts filed suit against Redland in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, alleging that the forklift was an uninsured motor

Page 606

vehicle within the meaning of Section 1295 and that, pursuant to Louisiana law, they were entitled to statutory UM benefits under Redland's policy. Redland answered, then moved for summary judgment, claiming that (1) the policy did not provide liability coverage for the North Carolina accident, and (2) Louisiana statutory UM coverage was unavailable to the Boyetts because the offending forklift was not an uninsured " motor vehicle" as the term is used in Section 1295(1)(a)(i). The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Redland, ruling that the policy did not provide liability coverage.[3] As to statutory UM coverage, however, the court ruled that Redland had failed to meet its summary judgment burden and denied the motion on that issue, reserving to Redland the right to re-urge it at a later time.

The court subsequently held a status conference with the parties to discuss whether the case could be disposed of on motions practice.[4] Following that conference, Redland re-urged its motion for summary judgment with respect to statutory UM coverage. The district court considered Redland's re-urged motion, then held that (1) Louisiana's UM statute applies to the Louisiana-issued policy even though the accident occurred in North Carolina, but (2) the offending forklift is not a " motor vehicle" for the purposes of that statute. The district court ruled that the Boyetts were not entitled to statutory UM benefits and dismissed their action. They timely filed a notice of appeal with respect to the district court's holding on statutory UM coverage.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review and Special Louisiana Erie Considerations

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the district court.[5] Summary judgment is appropriate when " there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." [6] When reviewing a summary judgment, we construe all the evidence and make all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[7] We are " not limited to the district court's reasons for its grant of summary judgment" and " may affirm the district court's summary judgment on any ground raised

Page 607

below and supported by the record." [8]

When, as in this case, subject matter jurisdiction is based on diversity, federal courts apply the substantive law of the forum state— here, Louisiana.[9] To determine the forum state's law, we look first to the final decisions of that state's highest court— here, the Louisiana Supreme Court.[10] In the absence of a determinative decision by that court on the issue of law before us, we must determine, in our best judgment, how we believe that court would resolve the issue.[11] As the Louisiana Supreme Court has not addressed whether (1) the state's UM statute applies to out-of-state accidents or (2) a forklift can be the uninsured or underinsured " motor vehicle" within the meaning of Section 1295, the district court had to make an " Erie guess" as to these two issues.[12] On appeal, we must do the same and do so de novo. [13]

In making our Erie guess in this case, we must employ Louisiana's civilian methodology in the same manner as would the Louisiana Supreme Court. [14] As we have previously explained, " [u]nder Louisiana's Civil Code, the only authoritative ‘ sources of law are legislation and custom.’ " [15] Indeed, in Louisiana " [l]egislation is a solemn expression of legislative will." [16] Thus, we must look first to Louisiana's Constitution, its codes, and statutes, because the " ‘ primary basis of law for a civilian is legislation, and not (as in the common law) a great body of tradition in the form of prior decisions of the courts.’ " [17] Unlike in common law systems, " [s]tare decisis is foreign to the Civil Law, including Louisiana." [18] Nevertheless, " in cases such as this[,] we are guided by decisions rendered by the Louisiana appellate courts, particularly when numerous decisions are in accord on a given issue" — i.e., jurisprudence constante [19]— " but we

Page 608

are not strictly bound by ...


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