Harper v. State

Decision Date09 September 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2014–CA–0110.,2014–CA–0110.
Citation176 So.3d 479
PartiesSharon HARPER and Michael Johnson Harper v. The STATE of Louisiana, through ITS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HOSPITALS; and The Department of Health and Hospitals.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US

Darleen M. Jacobs, Melvin J. Burmaster, Hunter Harris, IV, Jacobs, Sarrat, Lovelace, & Harris, New Orleans, LA, for Plaintiffs/Appellees, Sharon Harper, et al.

Patricia Nalley Bowers, Marian T. Harrison, Bowers & Bowers, New Orleans, LA, for Defendants/Appellants, The State of Louisiana, through Its Department of Health and Hospitals, and the Department of Health and Hospitals.

Opinion

TERRI F. LOVE, Judge.

This appeal arises from the illegal confinement of Willie Warren Harper following an acquittal of not guilty by reason of insanity for theft and a commitment to the custody of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Once released from custody, Mr. Harper filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages, but passed away. His children then filed suit against the State of Louisiana and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals seeking damages individually and on behalf of their father. Mr. Harper's class action petition was dismissed. Following a jury trial, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals was found one hundred percent liable for Mr. Harper's period of illegal confinement. The jury awarded $4,050,000.00 in damages to Mr. Harper's children on his behalf and individually.

The State and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals assert that: 1) the jury erred in finding that the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals had the authority to release Mr. Harper without a court order, 2) the trial court erred in refusing to reduce the jury verdict pursuant to the statutory cap in La. R.S. 13:5106, 3) the trial court erred in denying the exception of no cause of action as to the civil rights claims because neither the State, nor its agencies constitute a “person,” 4) the jury committed manifest error “in failing to allocate fault to the Orleans Parish Criminal Court ... the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office; and Willie Harper,” 5) the jury committed manifest error “in finding the DHH liable for the entire period of Mr. Harper's alleged illegal confinement,” and 6) the jury erred in awarding the plaintiffs individual damages because the jury found that the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals was not liable for Mr. Harper's death.

After our review, all five judges on the panel found that the trial court erred by denying the defendants' exception of no cause of action because the State and Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals are not considered “persons” pursuant to § 1983. Four judges agreed that the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals did not possess the sole authority to release Mr. Harper without a court order. Four judges also found that the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals owed a duty to Mr. Harper and was liable for his wrongful detention. Three judges held that the children failed to meet their burden of proof sufficient for an award for loss of consortium. Accordingly, we find that the trial court abused its discretion by awarding the children $275,000.00 each for loss of consortium, pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2315, and vacate the awards. Four panel members agreed that the trial court erred by refusing to limit the damage awards to $500,000.00 because the statutory cap applied at the time of judicial demand. Accordingly, and in compliance with Parfait v. Transocean Offshore, Inc.,07–1816 (La.9/19/07), 964 So.2d 928, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and render a judgment in favor of the children for $500,000.00.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 30, 1984, Willie Warren Harper was arrested for theft and possession of stolen property listed as, “aluminum pressure bars and door frames from the Louisiana World Exposition in downtown New Orleans, Louisiana.” On June 28, 1984, after being found incompetent to stand trial, Mr. Harper was committed to the Feliciana Forensic Facility (“FFF”), a part of the Department of Health and Hospitals (“DHH”), to restore his competency. On May 6, 1985, FFF deemed Mr. Harper competent to stand trial and transferred him to the custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office (“OPSO”) on June 26, 1985. The criminal court judge conducted a bench trial on August 14, 1985, and found Mr. Harper not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGRI”).1

On August 24, 1989, the criminal court judge found that Mr. Harper was not a danger to himself or others and that he should be released on the condition that the Orleans Inmate Treatment Service (“OITS”) locate a suitable halfway house for Mr. Harper and/or assist him in applying for welfare and social security. The criminal court judge requested an update by September 1, 1989. On December 29, 1989, the criminal court judge ordered that Mr. Harper be released when suitable living arrangements were made by Mr. Harper's counsel.

However, Mr. Harper remained in the custody of the OPSO until March 20, 1990, when he was transferred back to the custody of FFF. On January 7, 1992, the criminal court judge denied an FFF request to utilize excursion passes in furtherance of the deinstitutionalization of Mr. Harper. On June 27, 1994, the criminal court judge ordered that Mr. Harper be transferred within DHH to East Louisiana State Hospital (“ELSH”). Mr. Harper was moved to ELSH on December 6, 1994. On February 16, 1996, the criminal court judge signed an order permitting Mr. Harper to use family excursion passes. Subsequently, while on conditional release, Mr. Harper tested positive for cocaine usage on several of his visits with the after-care clinic.

On October 22, 1997, counsel for Mr. Harper filed an Emergency Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, which was granted on October 29, 1997. On December 3, 1997, the criminal court judge issued a judgment that recalled the original judgment as erroneous, but Mr. Harper remained unconditionally discharged.

Following Mr. Harper's release from custody, he filed a Class Action Petition for Certification and Damages stemming from his alleged illegal confinement and sought to have the petition certified as a class action. However, Mr. Harper passed away on November 14, 2003.2Sharon Harper and Michael Johnson Harper, as Mr. Harper's children (collectively Plaintiffs), filed a Petition for Damages against the State of Louisiana, through DHH and DHH (collectively Defendants) after the death of their father.

The Defendants filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment asserting that an award to the Plaintiffs would be subject to the application of the $500,000.00 statutory cap on damages, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5106. The trial court granted the Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and found that the $500,000.00 statutory cap applied.

Following a nine-day jury trial, the jury found that DHH possessed the authority to release Mr. Harper with or without a court order from August 14, 1985, through January 22, 1997. The jury found that DHH owed a duty to Mr. Harper to release him from custody and that DHH violated that duty. However, the jury found that no actions or inactions of the “Orleans Parish Criminal Court judges and staff, the Orleans Parish Criminal Clerk of Court and its staff, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, State of Louisiana through DHH (OITS Program), Charles Foti, Jr., the Indigent Defender Attorneys and/or Willie Harper constituted “an independent intervening cause” of Mr. Harper's alleged illegal confinement from August 14, 1985, through January 22, 1997. While the jury found that DHH was not liable for Mr. Harper's alleged wrongful death, DHH was found one hundred percent liable for his extended confinement. The jury awarded $4,050,000.00 in damages.3The trial court entered a judgment on the jury verdict. The Defendants filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or a New Trial and exceptions of no cause of action and no right of action regarding the 42 USC § 1983claims and the trial court's failure to apply the statutory cap based on law and the trial court's prior ruling that the statutory cap applied. The trial court denied all of the Defendants' requested relief. The Defendants' suspensive appeal followed.

The Defendants contend that: 1) the jury erred in finding that DHH had the authority to release Mr. Harper without a court order, 2) the trial court erred in refusing to reduce the jury verdict pursuant to the statutory cap in La. R.S. 13:5106,” 3) the trial court erred in denying the exception of no cause of action as to the civil rights claims because neither the State, nor its agencies constitute a “person,” 4) the jury committed manifest error “in failing to allocate fault to the Orleans Parish Criminal Court ... the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office; and Willie Harper,” 5) the jury committed manifest error “in finding the DHH liable for the entire period of Mr. Harper's alleged illegal confinement,” and 6) the jury erred in awarding the Plaintiffs individual damages because the jury found that DHH was not liable for Mr. Harper's death.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Factual findings are reviewed by appellate courts using the manifest error/clearly wrong standard of review. Hall v. Folger Coffee Co.,03–1734, p. 9 (La.4/14/04), 874 So.2d 90, 98. There are two prerequisites for reversing a factfinder's determination. Stobart v. State through Dep't of Transp. & Dev.,617 So.2d 880, 882 (La.1993). First, [t]he appellate court must find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding of the trial court.” Id.Second, “the appellate court must further determine that the record establishes that the finding is clearly wrong (manifestly erroneous).” Id.[T]he issue to be resolved by a reviewing court is not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong, but whether the factfinder's conclusion was a reasonable one.” Id.

“Even though an...

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