Dispute Over Responsibility in Accident at Apartment Complex

Every first year law student learns about negligence in their tort law class. Negligence claims are some of the most common claims brought in civil court. In order for a defendant to be found liable for negligence, it must be shown that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, which can also be refered to as a duty to protect. This means that the defendant has to have some level of responsibility for protecting the plaintiff from harm. If the defendant has no duty of care, then they cannot be held liable for negligence. The plaintiff has to prove that the defendant owed them that duty of care.

Sometimes it is easy to determine whether or not a defendant owed a plaintiff a duty of care. For instance, medical malpractice suits are often refered to as professional negligence since a doctor or nurse owes their patient a duty of care regarding their medical treatments. Likewise a lawyer owes his client a duty of care regarding their legal representation. But sometimes, a major point of contention in a lawsuit is whether such a duty of care exists at all. The case of Ponceti v. First Lake Properties shows what happens when a plaintiff cannot show that the defendant owed them a duty of care.

Ms. Ponceti and her daughter, Kaitlynn, lived in an apartment complex in Mandeville owned by First Lake Properties. One day Kaitlynn was riding her scooter in the courtyard of the complex. A teenager was riding his bike in the courtyard at the same time, and lost control of his bike while popping a wheelie. He hit Kaitlynn with his bike and injured her leg.

Ms. Ponceti subsequently sued First Lake Properties, alleging that they were negligent in allowing bikes to be ridden on the sidewalks and courtyard of the complex. Ms. Ponceti claimed such actions were in violation of a Mandeville city ordinance, and thus the apartment complex had a duty of care to protect those in the courtyard from bike riders. First Lake argued that they had no such responsibility to protect against a third party injuring people on their premises. Both the district court and the court of appeals denied First Lake’s motion for summary judgment, and the Louisiana Supreme Court ending up taking the case.

The Court began and ended their analysis with one question: did First Lake owe a duty of care to those on their premises in this case. In order to determine whether a business owed a duty to protect its residents, or customers, from the acts of third parties, the most important factor is the foreseeability of the dangerous behavior in light of the facts of the case and what type of premises is in question. In other words, the more foreseeable the behavior is, the more likely a duty to protect exists. When establishing the foreseeability of a dangerous behavior, the court looks to the “existence, frequency, and similarity of prior incidents” on the premises.

In this case, Ms. Ponceti relied on statements from the apartment manager stating that she knew that teens sometimes rode their bikes on the sidewalks and courtyard of the apartment complex. Ms. Ponceti argued that these statements showed that it was foreseeable that the bike riding teens might be reckeless and pose a danger to other residents of the complex. First Lake countered by showing that they had never received any complaints about the bike riders, nor had their been any previous injuries reported. The Court goes on to point out that the plaintiff herself stated that she had never seen, let alone reported, anybody riding bikes in the complex’s courtyard. The Court concluded that Ms. Ponceti simply had not established any previous incidents that would lead to her daughter’s injury being foreseeable.

The Court quickly dispatched with Ms. Ponceti’s argument that the Mandeville City Ordinance stating that bicycles “shall not be ridden on sidewalks or in public streets” established a duty of care on First Lake’s part by pointing out that nothing in the language of the ordinance shows that it applies to, or was meant to apply to, sidewalks or courtyards in private developments. The Court then concluded Ms. Ponceti simply did not prove that First Lake owed it resident a duty of care to protect them in this case and thus dismisses her suit.

The important takeaway from this case is how a court determines whether or not a duty of care exists. The more foreseeable an injury, the more likely a duty of care exists, but these cases will always be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

If you, or someone you know, feel that you have a potential negligence case, please contact the Berniard Law Firm so that you can talk to an attorney who will fight to make sure that you receive all of the damages you deserve.