Tangipahoa Parish Plaintiff Defeated at Summary Judgment by Failure to Link Defendant to Negligent Act

In late 2007, the Tangipahoa Parish government began making repairs to Berry Bowl Road in Independence, Louisiana. One of the contracting firms the parish hired to complete street overlay work was Barriere Construction Company, LLC. On the evening of January 8, 2007, Joseph Alessi, Jr. struck a “bump” in the road with his car, resulting in substantial damage to the vehicle and injuries to him and his two passengers, Linda Alessi and Tommie Sinagra. Following the accident, Alessi filed suit against Barriere, alleging that the company’s employees were negligent and liable for his damages. Specifically, the complaint alleged that Barriere was negligent in creating a defect in the roadway where vehicles were allowed to drive and failing to take reasonable measures to protect the public from the hazardous condition.

Barriere filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it had nothing to do with the condition of the road where Alessi’s accident occurred. Barriere submitted affidavits and detailed invoices it had remitted to Tangipahoa Parish in order to be paid showing that its crews had not worked on Berry Bowl Road for at least six days prior to the accident. Additionally, Barriere asserted that the time it had last worked on Berry Bowl Road, the repairs had ended approximately 700 feet from the location where Alessi hit the bump. Barriere offered that any problemw with the road must have been caused by a Tangipahoa Parish bridge construction crew that was working in the area at the time. The district court held a hearing on the motion for summary judgment on September 28, 2009 and the next day granted Barriere’s motion. Alessi appealed.

The First Circuit reviewed the district court’s granting of summary judgment de novo, meaning that it examined all of the evidence in the case as if for the first time. The court explained that “summary judgment is warranted only if there is no genuine issue as to material fact.” A fact is considered “material” if

“it potentially insures or precludes recovery, affects a litigant’s ultimate success, or determines the outcome of the legal dispute…. A genuine issue is one as to which reasonable persons could disagree; if a reasonable person could reach only one conclusion, there is no need for trial on that issue and summary judgment is appropriate.” Alessi v. Barriere Construction Co., LLC, No. 2010 CA 0005 (La. App. 1st Cir. 2010).

The court weighed the considerable evidence offered by Barriere in support of its motion against the evidence presented by Alessi. Alessi’s expert offered the opinion that the damage to the vehicle supports the conclusion “that the roadway was left by the contractor in a severe and hazardous condition.” But while the court could accept that the vehicle’s damage pointed toward the existence of a hazardous condition, it determined that “there are absolutely no facts or any evidence to support a conclusion that the condition was created by [Barriere].” Noting the deficiency of Alessi’s evidence, the court stated, “affidavits that are devoid of specific underlying facts to support a conclusion of ultimate ‘fact’ are not legally sufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s order.

It is undisputed that a road crew owes a duty to motorists to take reasonable steps to ensure that the road is safe. Damage to a passing car and injuries to passengers suggests this duty was breached by the contractor who left the road in a dangerous condition without at least warning oncoming cars of the peril. But essential to establishing a defendant’s negligence is connecting that defendant to the dangerous condition. Here, Alessi’s claim against Barriere failed because he could not make this connection. Certainly the evidence suggested Alessi suffered a misfortune due to someone’s negligence, but without more evidence tying Barriere to the incident, the court was unwilling to simply assume Barriere was responsible.

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