Ruffin v. Stewart and Associates, and Republic Vanguard Insurance Company

Mike Sistrunk, assisted by Devin Fadaol, recently won a victory for Republic Insurance Company’s 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 plaintiff, a pedestrian, was struck by a car operated by Byron Stewart, Jr.  He suffered a crushed leg and eventually underwent multiple surgeries, an amputated leg, colon removal and is now in a nursing home.  Republic issued a business automobile policy which was arguably ambiguous in several areas. The vehicle was owned personally by the Company’s president, Byron Stewart, Sr., but all repairs and expenses were paid for by the Company.   The jury placed all fault for the accident on Byron Stewart, Jr. (son) and his personal insurer, Progressive Insurance Company, who had a separate minimal limits policy on the subject vehicle.

The broad language of the Republic policy arguably had several portals for coverage to attach (i.e. simply using the vehicle “in furtherance of the business” or “in connection with the business” would trigger coverage).  Further, there were allegations of negligent entrustment and bad faith, which triggered excess exposure concerns.  The court gave the jury parts of the policy in its jury charges instead of determining coverage as a matter of law.  The jury verdict form gave three separate opportunities for the jury to find coverage.

During closing arguments, plaintiff’s attorney asked for $3.5M.  The jury returned a verdict of $2.7M at midnight on a Friday, but found that plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages and reduced the award.   Of further note, the jury accepted a reduced life expectancy in the plaintiff’s life care plan because of his pre-existing schizophrenia per the defense expert.  In closing argument, co-defendant’s counsel also pointed to the Company as the only responsible party.