Rodriguez v. Mark Walters, Sr., Perry Alexcee, Jr., Auto Club Family Ins. Co.

Decision Date05 February 2014
Docket NumberNo. 2012–CA–0959.,2012–CA–0959.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US
PartiesMary A. RODRIGUEZ, Lisa M. Rodriguez and Tami M. Cabrera v. Mark WALTERS, Sr., Perry Alexcee, Jr., Auto Club Family Insurance Company, and XYZ Insurance Company.

136 So.3d 871

Mary A. RODRIGUEZ, Lisa M. Rodriguez and Tami M. Cabrera
Mark WALTERS, Sr., Perry Alexcee, Jr., Auto Club Family Insurance Company, and XYZ Insurance Company.

No. 2012–CA–0959.

Court of Appeal of Louisiana,
Fourth Circuit.

Feb. 5, 2014.

Kenneth E. Pickering, Pickering & Cotogno, New Orleans, LA, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

[136 So.3d 872]

Richard A. Chopin, Caroline L. Stewart, Chopin Wagar Richard & Kutcher, Metairie, LA, for Defendant/Appellee.



The plaintiffs, Mary Rodriguez and her daughters, Lisa Rodriguez and Tami Cabrera, appeal the final judgment of the district court finding the defendants free from fault in a boating accident that resulted in the deaths of Jerry Rodriguez, Sr. (the husband of Mary Rodriguez and the father of Lisa and Tami) and his son, Jerry Rodriguez, Jr. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's judgment.


On December 9, 2007, defendant Perry Alexcee, Jr., was operating a BayStealth boat owned by defendant Mark Walters, Sr., when it collided with a flatboat operated by Mr. Rodriguez, Jr., in Petain Lagoon. In addition to the driver, Mr. Alexcee, there were three passengers on the BayStealth, including its owner, Mr. Walters. The only occupants of the flatboat were Mr. Rodriguez, Jr. (the driver) and his father, both of whom were killed as a result of the collision.

On November 12, 2008, the plaintiffs filed a wrongful death petition against Mr. Alexcee, Mr. Walters and Auto Club Family Insurance Company (“Auto Club”), the insurer of the BayStealth, alleging that the death of the plaintiffs' husband/ father, Mr. Rodriguez, Sr., was caused by the negligence of Mr. Alexcee in driving the flatboat. The petition was later amended to include allegations of negligence against Mr. Walters, the owner of the flatboat.1 A bench trial was conducted on October 3–4, 2011, following which the trial court took the matter under advisement. On November 29, 2011, the trial court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants accompanied by written Reasons for Judgment. This appeal follows.


In their sole assignment of error, the plaintiffs argue that the trial court committed manifest error by finding no fault on the part of the defendants in causing the accident. Specifically, they argue that the trial court's failure to apportion fault between the Rodriguezes and the defendants was clearly wrong.


We review this case under the manifest error standard. Under that standard, an appellate court may not set aside a trial court's or a jury's finding of fact in the absence of “manifest error” or unless it is “clearly wrong,” and where there is conflict in the testimony, reasonable evaluations of credibility and reasonable inferences of fact should not be disturbed upon review, even though the appellate court may feel that its own evaluations and inferences are as reasonable. Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La.1989). Thus, the issue to be resolved by the reviewing court is not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong, but whether the fact finder's conclusion was a reasonable one. Stobart v. State Through Dept. of Transp. and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La.1993). Credibility determinations by the trial court are subject

[136 So.3d 873]

to the strictest deference, and the manifest error or clearly wrong standard demands great deference for the trial court's findings. Theriot v. Lasseigne, 93–2661, p. 9 (La.7/5/94), 640 So.2d 1305, 1313. The trial court's allocation of fault is a factual finding entitled to such deference. Clement v. Frey, 95–1119, p. 7 (La.1/16/96), 666 So.2d 607, 610. Thus, the appellate court is permitted to adjust the award to the parties only after it has found a “clearly wrong” apportionment of fault, and then only to the extent of lowering or raising the award to the highest or lowest point, respectively, which was reasonably within the trial court's discretion. Id., 95–1119, pp. 7–8, 666 So.2d at 611.

DISCUSSIONI. Evidence presented at Trial
A. Investigator Testimony

Senior Agent Roy Pier of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was the officer in charge of the Department's investigation of the accident. He testified that he arrived on the scene roughly one hour after the accident, remained for several hours, and then returned to the scene the next day to complete his investigation. During the course of the investigation, he spoke with all of the occupants of the BayStealth and obtained their written statements. Based on his investigation, he testified that at the time of the collision, the BayStealth was in Petain Lagoon heading toward the Terre–aux–Boeuf cut, and the flatboat was coming from Terre–aux–Boeuf going into Petain Lagoon. The BayStealth was on plane (flat in the water), while the flatboat was riding with its bow in the air, which indicated it was proceeding forward with some speed.

Agent Pier stated that Mr. Alexcee was an experienced operator. He testified that Mr. Alexcee had turned to the right when he first noticed the flatboat veering toward him, and then when he noticed that the occupants of the flatboat had not seen him, Mr. Alexcee had turned hard to the right and throttled up. Based upon his interviews of the passengers on the BayStealth, Agent Pier testified that they had yelled and screamed at the people on the Rodriguez boat but had failed to get their attention.

Agent Pier testified that Mr. Alexcee had done everything he could to avoid the collision. The agent found fault on the part of the Rodriguez flatboat, however. According to Agent Pier, the Coast Guard rules state that when two boats are approaching one another and there is a potential problem, each boat is to pull to their right. He concluded that Mr. Alexcee had followed his rule, but Mr. Rodriguez had not. Agent Pier testified that the two causes of the accident were the inattention of the Rodriguezes and their inability to see forward because their vision was obstructed by several objects on the bow of the boat, including a chair and pirogue rack.

Lieutenant Robert Martin of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Enforcement Division, was the supervising agent for the investigation of this accident. As part of the investigation, Lieutenant Martin also interviewed the passengers on the boat being operated by Mr. Alexcee. Lieutenant Martin testified that when a collision is imminent, a boat operator “should reasonably do what [he] can to avoid the accident ... regardless of what that action is.” In his opinion, Mr. Alexcee had done everything he could do to avoid the accident. Lieutenant Martin concluded that Mr. Rodriguez had been operating the flatboat carelessly, but Mr. Alexcee had not been careless in the operation of his boat.

B. Eyewitness Testimony

Mr. Alexcee testified that he was the one operating the boat that day because he

[136 So.3d 874]

was familiar with the Delacroix area as he fished there “all the time.” He testified that there were three passengers on the BayStealth with him: Mark Walters (the owner of the boat), and two friends, Spencer Howard and Terry Scott. Mr. Alexcee stated that prior to the accident, the BayStealth was travelling 25 to 30 miles per hour. When he first saw the flatboat, Mr. Alexcee throttled down so that he could determine the direction the flatboat was travelling. He testified that he throttled down at least one more time, but did not stop the boat because “you're not really supposed to stop exactly when a boat [is] coming towards you.” He stated that he believed the Rodriguezes never saw the BayStealth because they kept coming straight toward him and did not attempt to change their course.

Mr. Walters testified that he owned the BayStealth. At the time of the collision, Mr. Walters was seated in the front left captain's chair. He confirmed that his nephew, Mr. Alexcee, was driving the boat that day because Mr. Walters himself was not familiar with the area in which they were fishing. Mr. Walters said he was fixing his fishing reel when he noticed that Mr. Alexcee pulled the throttle back to slow down. Mr. Walters first saw the flatboat after Mr. Alexcee throttled back for the second time. Mr. Walters stated that Mr. Alexcee throttled down a third time, then throttled up and turned to the right. He did not recall seeing anyone on the flatboat because the flatboat was “riding high.” However, Mr. Walters recalled everyone on his boat shouting at the people in the flatboat in order to get their attention. He stated that he never saw the flatboat attempt to change direction. Mr. Walters knew Mr. Alexcee to be an experienced operator and had not observed Mr. Alexcee operating the boat improperly or recklessly or dangerously that day.

Mr. Scott testified that he was sitting next to Mr. Alexcee, who was standing at the steering column. He stated that he told Mr. Alexcee that the flatboat looked like it was coming towards them, but could not recall the distance between the two boats. At that time, Mr. Alexcee “gunned it and turned it to the right.” Mr. Scott further testified that he knew that the passengers on the flatboat did not see them because the bow of the flatboat was high in the air and that would have obstructed their view. In his opinion, Mr. Alexcee did everything he could possibly do to avoid being hit by the flatboat.

Mr. Howard testified that he was sitting on a chair in the front of the boat at the time of the collision. He stated that he noticed the flatboat after they rounded a curve. He testified that the flatboat was going fast, and it looked like it was up in the air. He stated that the occupants of the flatboat were not looking in the direction of the BayStealth, and the passengers of the BayStealth were unable to get their attention.

C. Expert

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    ...plain words of the law and will carry out the intention of the lawmaker. Rodriguez v. Walters , 12-0959, p. 13 (La. App. 4 Cir. 2/5/14), 136 So.3d 871, 883. We must, therefore, reconcile and harmonize the provision at issue here with other provisions of La. R.S. 40:1231.8, two of which expr......

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