University of Vermont AAHS

Soloco v. Dupree

Supreme Court of Louisiana, January 21, 1998

707 So. 2d 12

Summary of Opinion

Plaintiff’s vehicle collided with a thoroughbred horse owned by defendant Dupree but which had been placed in the control of the LeBlancs while Dupree was away on business.  The horse escaped from the farm and collided with plaintiff on a public road.

The defendant horse owner claimed he was not liable because of a Louisiana statute that made owners of thoroughbred racing horses immune from liability for injuries caused by such horses when they are in the control of others, in this case the LeBlancs.  The trial court declared this statute unconstitutional, but on appeal the Louisiana Supreme Court held the statute was constitutional because it was enacted for the legitimate purpose of encouraging the economic activity of thoroughbred racing in Louisiana.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for trial.

Text of Opinion

This case arises out of an accident between an automobile and a thoroughbred race horse.  At issue is the constitutionality of La.R.S. 4:173.1, which limits the liability of owners of thoroughbred horses when those horses are in the care, custody, or control of a third person.  After La.R.S. 4:173.1 was declared unconstitutional in the district court, defendant appealed directly to this court under La. Const. art. V. s 5(D). For the following reasons, we find La.R.S. 4:173.1 constitutional, and we remand this case to the district court for further proceedings.
FACTS

In the early morning hours of February 3, 1994, "June's Bid," a thoroughbred race horse, escaped from the farm of Shelton J. LeBlanc near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.  June's Bid was owned by Julius W. Dupree, who had stabled the horse at the LeBlanc farm while he attended business in Texas. Prior to his departure, Mr. Dupree had arranged for Cornelius Johnson, a licensed groom who lived near the LeBlanc farm, to feed and exercise June's Bid in his absence.  On February 3, 1994, Johnson was exercising the horse in a swimming tank on the LeBlanc farm when the horse broke its lead and bolted towards Highway 94, which was adjacent to the farm.  Before June's Bid could be recovered, it was involved in an accident with a pickup truck owned by Soloco, Inc., and driven by P.J. LeBlanc, a Soloco employee.  June's Bid was killed in the collision, and significant damage was caused to the Soloco vehicle.  P.J. LeBlanc was also injured in the accident.  Soloco and P.J. LeBlanc filed suit for damages they sustained as a .result of the accident, and their cases were consolidated for trial purposes. Julius Dupree, Shelton LeBlanc, and Cornelius Johnson were named defendants in both suits.

Prior to trial, Julius Dupree and Shelton LeBlanc each filed peremptory exceptions of no cause of action and no right of action, citing La.R.S. 4:173.1, which provides:

 In response to defendants' exceptions, Soloco filed a "Motion for Summary and/ or Declaratory Judgment," asserting that La.R.S. 4:173.1 was unconstitutional. After a hearing on plaintiff's motion, the district court held La.R.S. 4:173.1 unconstitutionally violated Soloco's rights of equal protection and substantive due process, stating:
 LAW

Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and the burden of proving that an act of the legislature is unconstitutional is upon the party attacking the act.  Moore v. Roemer, 567 So.2d 75, 78 (La.1990).  The power of the legislature is plenary, and a party challenging a statute's constitutionality must articulate a particular constitutional provision that limits the legislature's powers.  Chamberlain v. State, Through DOTD, 624 So.2d 874 (La.1993).  In the instant case, plaintiffs have invoked the equal protection provision of the Louisiana constitution and principles of substantive due process.  We will address each of these arguments in turn.

EQUAL PROTECTION OF LAWS

 La. Const. art. I, s 3 provides:

As noted by this Court in Manuel v. State, 95-CA-2189 (La.7/2/96), 692 So.2d 320, La. Const. art. I, s 3 provides for three levels of constitutional review or scrutiny.  Laws which classify individuals based on race or religious beliefs are repudiated completely.  An intermediate level of scrutiny is reserved for laws which classify persons on the basis of birth, age, sex, culture, physical condition, or political ideas or affiliation.  The lowest level of scrutiny applies to laws which classify persons on any basis other than those enumerated in La. Const. art. I, s 3. Such laws need only be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose, and a person attacking the constitutionality of such a classification has the stringent burden of demonstrating that the law does not suitably further any appropriate state interest.  See, Manuel, supra at 339;  Moore v. RLCC Technologies, Inc. 95-2621 (La.2/28/96), 668 So.2d 1135;  Sibley v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 477 So.2d 1094 (La.1985).

The basis for plaintiff's equal protection challenge is its assertion that the statute unfairly discriminates against people injured by thoroughbreds as opposed to people injured by other types of animals.  Plainly, this is not a classification based on one of the characteristics enumerated in La. Const. art. I, s 3. As a result, the lowest level of scrutiny applies, and to prevail plaintiff must show that La.R.S. 4:173.1 does not further an appropriate state interest.

The clearly stated policy of the legislature is the promotion and encouragement of licensed horse racing in Louisiana.  La.R.S. 4:141 states:

The horse racing industry is an important source of state revenue in addition to being a substantial employer of Louisiana residents.  The owners of the thoroughbred horses used in racing are the lifeblood of the industry, in that they are the major source of the industry's capital.

 La.R.S. 4:173.1 encourages the ownership of thoroughbred race horses by limiting an owner's liability only when the thoroughbred is placed in the custody of another.  The liability of the owner of the horse is not altogether eliminated.  Rather, the owner's liability is lowered from strict liability to gross negligence, and only when the owner places the thoroughbred in the custody of another.  By removing a considerable risk of tort liability from the absentee owner and placing it on the party who actually has custody of the thoroughbred, La.R.S. 4:173.1 encourages the flow of capital into the racing industry in the same way that a corporate business entity promotes shareholder investment  by limiting liability.  It also encourages owners to place their horses with third party trainers, and thereby fosters the profession of horse training.  We find that La.R.S. 4:173.1 is rationally related to the legislature's stated public purpose of promoting thoroughbred racing in Louisiana. [FN1]
 

DUE PROCESS

Prior to the enactment of La.R.S. 4:173.1 in 1990, the owner of a domesticated animal was strictly liable for damages caused by that animal. Liability attached whether or not the owner had custody of the animal at the time the damages occurred.  Rozell v. Louisiana Animal Breeders Co-op., 496 So.2d 275 (La.1986). [FN2]  Plaintiffs assert that by enacting La.R.S. 4:173.1, the legislature has deprived them of a valuable property right, namely the right to recover from owners of thoroughbred race horses.  Plaintiffs argue that because this fundamental liberty or property right has been abridged by the legislature, La.R.S. 4:173.1 should be subject to heightened scrutiny.
 

Initially, we note that the accident in the case sub judice occurred in 1994, long after La.R.S. 4:173.1 became effective in 1990.  Plaintiffs have not been deprived of a vested cause of action against the owner of June's Bid. Their cause of action against the owner never arose under Louisiana law.  As a result, plaintiff's complaint that La.R.S. 4:173.1 has deprived them of a vested property right is without merit.  The Louisiana Supreme Court in Burmaster v. Gravity Drainage District No. 2 of the Parish of St. Charles, 366 So.2d 1381 (1978) stated that:

Burmaster, supra at 1387.

 The district court held that the policy advanced by La.R.S. 4:173.1 was improper in that the responsibility for damages caused by thoroughbred horses was removed from the party who enjoyed the benefit of owning the animal and who had the most ability to pay for the damages.  Although the policy advanced by the district court for its finding of unconstitutionality is reasonable, it is inconsistent with the policy determination already made by the legislature.

The district court erred in allowing its own policy determination to override the policy determination made by the legislature.  It is not the prerogative of the judiciary to disregard public policy decisions underlying legislation or to reweigh balances of interests and policy considerations already struck by the legislature.  Daigle v. Clemco Industries, 613 So.2d 619 (La.1993).  It is not our role to consider the wisdom of the legislature in adopting the statute.  It is our province to determine only the applicability, legality, and constitutionality of the statute.  Chamberlain v. State, Through DOTD, 624 So.2d 874 (La.1993), citing City of New Orleans v. Scramuzza, 507 So.2d 215, 219 (La.1987).

CONCLUSION

 La.R.S. 4:173.1 is rationally related to the state's interest in developing commerce and generating state revenue through the promotion of thoroughbred racing in Louisiana.  La.R.S. 4:173.1 does not violate constitutional principles of equal protection and substantive due process. Accordingly, the district court's judgment holding La.R.S. 4:173.1 unconstitutional is reversed.  This case is remanded to the Fifteenth Judicial District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 REVERSED AND REMANDED.



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