Fall at Hospital Brings to Light Debate Over Liability for Public Entity

Generally, if you are injured due to the fault of someone else, you are likely to have a legal claim. However, this is not always the case. You must prove additional elements if you are injured on the property of a public entity. A case involving the West Jefferson Medical Center helps explain these concepts.

A woman was on the way to visit a family member in the hospital when she tripped and injured herself on the sidewalk. One portion of the sidewalk near the parking garage was raised about two inches from the rest, and the woman caught her foot on the raised portion. She fell and suffered injuries to her foot, neck, and shoulder. Then, she filed a complaint against the hospital for damages related to her injuries. Her complaint included her medical records and photos of the raised portion of the sidewalk.

The West Jefferson Medical Center, in Marrero, Louisiana, is a public entity because it is state sponsored. As such, the woman needed to prove not only that she was injured, but also the additional elements that are required for a suit against a public entity. Requirements for suit against a public entity include: establishment that the thing that caused the damage was in the custody of the public entity, the thing was defective because it had a condition that caused an unreasonable risk of harm, that the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the defect and failed to take corrective measures within a reasonable time, and that the defect was in fact the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Since the injured woman’s complaint was dismissed in the lower court on summary judgment (the lower court found no legal claim and issued a judgment as a matter of law), then the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana, where this case was appealed, could look at the facts de novo. That means that the court of appeals could consider all of the facts in the record and make their own determination instead of just evaluating the decision making process of the lower court. This standard gives the lower court much less deference than they would otherwise have.

The West Jefferson Medical Center does not deny that the sidewalk near their parking garage was in their custody at the time of the incident. However, the determination that the sidewalk posed an unreasonable risk of harm is a more difficult question. Generally, courts use a balancing test to determine the unreasonable risk of harm standard. The balancing test involves balancing the gravity and risk of harm against the individual and societal utility, along with the cost and feasibility of repair. In addition, in order for it to be an unreasonable harm, the defect must be one that an ordinary person would expect to cause harm. In the past, the court has held that a sidewalk deviation of one to two inches is not an unreasonable risk of harm; they ruled the same way in this case.

Next, the court points out that the public entity must have known about the risk and either deliberately ignored it or did not repair it within a reasonable time. This requirement can also be satisfied by constructive notice. Constructive notice states that the public entity should have known about the circumstance, even if they did not actually know about the circumstance. Normally, if the injured person were not suing a public entity, there would be two overreaching legal theories where the defendant could be liable: strict liability and negligence. Strict liability allows the plaintiff to avoid proving the notice requirements. However, because public entities are not subject to strict liability regarding notice, thanks to La. R.S. 9:2800, the injured party still needs to prove the notice requirement in every case.

The West Jefferson Medical Center presented affidavits that stated all of the improvements that were recently conducted on their sidewalks. In fact, according to the records in Jefferson Parrish, there had not been a single previous complaint about the sidewalk conditions near the medical center. Jefferson Parrish also performed improvements in the same area, but not in the area that the woman fell. As a result, the West Jefferson Medical Center argued that they did not have notice of this particular two-inch raise in the sidewalk. The West Jefferson Medical Center does not dispute that the two inch raise caused the woman’s fall.

The court agreed that the woman could not prove the notice requirement regarding the two-inch raise in the sidewalk. The court declared that since the plaintiff, who would bear the burden of proof at trial, could not show an essential element of her claim, then the the court upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the hospital.

The Berniard Law Firm is experienced in personal injury cases and would be happy to help you if you may have a legal question. Call 1-866-574-8005 today.