Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Department of Transportation and Development Found Liable for Natchitoches Parish Drowning

In a ruling by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) were found jointly liable for $3.9 million to Vanna McManus and her children, the survivors of a man who drowned at Chivery Dam in Natchitoches Parish.

The deceased, Hugh McManus, was fishing with his friend Stanley Neal at the 70-year-old Chivery Dam in Mr. Neal’s boat. They pulled up close to the dam, killed the motor, and began throwing cast nets. The pair believed that the current in the nearby Saline Bayou would cause them to drift back downstream, but because of water coming over the dam and how close they were when they stopped, they were actually pulled toward the dam. The two men did not notice this until the boat bumped against the dam and began filling with water. The pair abandoned the boat without securing their life vests. Mr. Neal was able to make it to shore by walking on top of the dam, but Mr. McManus drowned. There were no warning signs posted anywhere near the dam announcing that approaching within a certain number of feet was dangerous.

A Natchitoches Parish jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them $3,880,965.95, with 25% of the fault allocated to LDWF (which owned the dam) and 75% to DOTD (which inspected and maintained the dam). The State of Louisiana appealed, claiming that the jury erred in finding that DOTD and LDWF were liable to the plaintiffs and that DOTD had a legal duty to warn of the alleged dangerous condition that caused Mr. McManus’ death. The jury also concluded that DOTD willfully or maliciously failed to warn against a dangerous condition under La. R.S. 9:2795 and that a dangerous condition existed at Chivery Dam at the time of the accident and that DOTD and/of LDWF had constructive notice of it.

In order to prove liability on the part of the state, the plaintiff has to show: 1) that there was a dangerous condition which presented an unreasonable risk of harm; 2) that the State had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition and enough time to take remedial action; 3) that the State had a duty to warn of the dangerous conditions; and 4) that the State was willful in its inaction. This last requirement overcomes the usual qualified immunity defense; La. R.S. 9:2795 states in part that an owner of land who permits someone else to use the land does not extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purposes except for willful or malicious failure to warn against a dangerous condition. If the condition is obviously dangerous and would be clear to both the owner and a visitor, no duty exists to warn about the danger. If the unreasonably dangerous condition is not “open and obvious,” however, there is a duty to warn the plaintiffs of the danger.

Most of the jury’s findings that the State claimed were error were factual determinations, so the appellate court could not overturn them unless they were clearly wrong. It was clear that there was a reasonable basis for all of the jury’s findings, and the appellate court affirmed all of the trial court’s decisions.

In this case, there was testimony that there were at least two similar occurrences (without injuries) at the dam previous to this tragic incident. One incident involved Mr. McAlpine, a 28-year veteran enforcement agent for LDWF, who would have drowned had he not been able to grab a life preserver. He testified that someone who witnessed the accident had a similar experience and had seen several other accidents in the same area. Because Mr. McAlpine was and is a LDWF agent, LDWF can be said to have constructive knowledge of the unreasonably dangerous condition.

The plaintiffs’ expert witness, an engineer, testified that it was not possible to fix the condition and that the only alternative was to post warnings, buoys, or barricades that would have warned the plaintiffs. He pointed out that even the DOTD website states that the operator is required to correct or post warnings if there is a dangerous condition. He also testified that unless a person had training or experience with dams, there was no way to tell that the condition existed. The State did not refute the expert testimony. The evidence at the trial was enough to show that the State’s failure to post warning signs was willful, since they knew about the problem and had more than enough time to post signs.

Have you suffered injuries while on someone else’s land due to a dangerous condition you didn’t know about? Call the Berniard Law Firm today toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you.