West Baton Rouge poll worker wins “slip and fall” case against land owner

In the predawn hours of an October 21, 1995, election day, Elizabeth Cazes arrived at a polling place on Antonio Road in West Baton Rouge where she was scheduled to work as election commissioner. She entered the building using a set of concrete steps at the front entrance of the building that were dimly lit by a single light bulb at approximately 5:20 a.m.

About a half hour later, Ms. Cazes came back outside to post an election sign. As she descended down the stairs, Cazes slipped and fell when she placed her foot on a cracked off portion of the bottom step. Cazes broke her fall with her right hand causing a severe fracture to her right wrist which required multiple surgeries and an external fixation device to be applied to her arm. Ms. Cazes filed suit against the Parish of West Baton Rouge (the “Parish) and the West Baton Rouge Parish Council (the “Council”), who were identified as the owners of the polling place. Cazes alleged that the stairs were defective and that the Parish and Council were strictly liable for her injuries. The trial court found for Cazes, and the Parish and Council appealed.

In an effort to make the voting process as pleasant as possible for all Louisiana citizens, state law requires that the owner of a polling place provide a “reasonably safe place for all voters and election commissioners expected to frequent the premises.” Burgess v. City of Shreveport, 471 So.2d 690, 693 (La. 1985). A polling place owner who allows his facility to fall into disrepair risks a legal claim from in injured voter under a theory of strict liability. Under this theory, an injured plaintiff is required to show: (1) the property which caused the injury was under the control of the defendant; (2) the property’s condition created an unreasonable risk of harm to persons on the premises; and (3) the defect in the property was a cause of the injury. See Oster v. Dept. of Transp. & Development, 582 So. 2d 1285 (La. 1991). When the polling place owner is the government, Louisiana law further requires the plaintiff to prove that the owner knew or should have known of the defect, and that it had a reasonable amount of time to repair the problem but did not do so. La. R.S. 9:2800.

Under the theory of premises liability, codified in Louisiana civil code articles 2317 and 2322, a person in possession of land or premises can be found responsible for certain injuries suffered by a person on their land or premises. In general, a land or premises owner has a duty to provide a reasonably safe place for its occupants. If an owner, with knowledge of a dangerous condition, does not take reasonable steps to repair the condition, the owner will be found liable if the dangerous condition causes injury to a person lawfully on the premises.

In this case, a Louisiana statute provides immunity from liability for the owners of a premise while it is being used as a polling place on an election day. However, the statute did not apply in this case because Cazes’ situation fell under the statute’s exception for strict liability cases, such as premises liability. Strict liability allows liability without proving fault or intent.

Based on Cazes’ doctor’s testimony, the trial court held and the appellate court agreed that Cazes’ fall on her right hand was caused by an “unreasonably dangerous condition created by the defendants” and that her fractured wrist was a result of the fall. In these sort of matters, a plaintiff must also prove that the defendant knew or should have known of the defect that caused the injury and had a reasonable amount of time to remedy the defect but did not do so. An owner should have known of the condition if the owner had constructive notice. Constructive notice exists if the defective condition had existed for such a period of time that it should have been discovered and repaired if the public body had exercised reasonable care.

The trial court reasoned, and the appellate court agreed, that since an employee had broken the step while mowing the lawn, the defendant had “constructive knowledge” of the broken step. Additionally, since the step had been broken for several months, the court also found the defendant “failed to take reasonable steps to correct the condition.” Therefore, because the steps in question were in the land owner’s control, the broken steps, coupled with the absence of handrails, presented an unreasonable risk of harm to Cazes. Further, the defective condition of the step caused her injuries, and the land owner had constructive notice of the defective condition. As a result, the Parish of West Baton Rouge and the West Baton Rouge Parish Council are liable for Cazes’ injuries.

Still, under Louisiana law, when a party’s injury is partly the result of his or her own negligence and partly the fault of another person or persons’ negligence, the amount of recoverable damages shall be reduced in proportion to the degree or percentage of negligence attributable to the person suffering the injury. According to Louisiana case law the court takes a number of factors into account when apportioning liability: (1) whether conduct resulted from inadvertence or involved an awareness of the danger, (2) how great a risk was created by the conduct, (3) the significance of what was sought by the conduct, (4) the capacities of the actor, whether superior or inferior, and (5) any extenuating circumstances which might require the actor to proceed in haste, without proper thought.

Based on the previous factors, the trial court concluded and the appellate court agreed that Cazes was five percent at fault for her injury because of her inadvertent behavior of failing to look down as she descended down the steps. The court also reasoned that the land owner had the superior capacity to avoid the danger created by the steps. The land owners could have repaired them or closed off the entrance. Therefore, Cazes recovered 95 percent of the damages calculated by the trial court.

In examining the elements of Cazes’s strict liability claim, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that there was no dispute at trial over the ownership and control of the polling place. On the question of whether the condition of the step created an unreasonable risk of harm, the Court noted that it is required to give deference to the trial court’s finding. Furthermore, the Court noted that

The evidence is uncontradicted that on election day, the bottom step at the main entrance of the polling place was broken with part of the concrete step missing. The steps were unquestionably expected to be used by the general public on that day. … We find no manifest error in the trial court’s conclusion that the missing part of the step … along with the absence of handrails, presented an unreasonable risk of harm to Mrs. Cazes.”

The Court offered a similar approval of the trial court’s finding on the third element, that the defective step was the cause of Cazes’s fall.

On the fourth element, the Court reviewed that under Louisiana law a public entity must have notice of a defect in order to be responsible for damage resulting from it. The Court explained that notice can be “drawn from facts demonstrating that the defective condition had existed for such a period of time that it should have been discovered and repaired if the public body had exercised reasonable care.” At trial, Cazes’s husband testified that the step had been broken for several months prior to the accident. Mr. Cazes was aware of the problem with the step because he regularly walked on the road in front of the building. His testimony affirmed several facts that were essential to the case, especially that he had been informed by a Parish employee that the step had been broken by a lawnmower that the Parish used to cut the grass. Based on Mr. Cazes’ testimony and the fact that the condition of the step had been caused by the Parish’s own employee, the Court upheld the trial court’s finding that “the defendants, by the exercise of ordinary care and diligence, must have known of its existence in general and could have guarded the plaintiff from injury.”

Although the Cazes case involves a polling place, the essential duty to maintain a safe premises applies to all property owners in Louisiana. The failure to make needed repairs–especially when a defect should be discovered by the owner–is a “lawsuit waiting to happen” if a visitor is injured by the defect. Premises liability is a complex issue. In summary, a land or premises owner has a duty to provide a reasonably safe place for its occupants. If the owner knows or should have known of a dangerous condition and failed to take reasonable steps to repair it and the dangerous condition causes an injury, the owner is strictly liable for the injury. Finally, if the injured party is partially at fault, his or her damages may be reduced by the percentage that the fact finder decides he is at fault.