West Monroe Woman’s Slip and Fall Lawsuit Revived by Appeals Court on Constructive Knowledge Grounds

Handrails-768x1024As the old saying goes, “accidents happen.”  But, in personal injury lawsuits, like in many matters, another saying is more on point: “The devil is in the details.”  And on that point the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment in favor of the City of West Monroe in a lawsuit brought by an elderly woman who claimed she was injured in a fall. The lawsuit against the city arose from purported negligence in maintaining the handrails of a handicap ramp located at the West Monroe court facility. The plaintiff, Bernice Walters, alleged that the handrail collapsed as she was using it to lower herself into her vehicle, which was in a parking space adjacent to the handicap ramp. Walters alleged that the city had constructive knowledge of the defective condition of the handrail. In response, the City of West Monroe moved for summary judgment and the motion was granted by the trial court.

The trial court cited a lack of evidence that the city had actual or constructive notice of the condition of the handrail; there was insufficient circumstantial evidence to prove that the city knew of the defective handrail. Appealing the summary judgment, Walters asserted that the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to maintain the handicap ramp in a manner consistent with the ADA regulations. This violation of the ADA allegedly satisfied the burden of proof for constructive knowledge, since the existence of relevant regulations suggests that the city should have known that their lack of maintenance was negligent.      

Upon review, the appellate court accepted Walters’ theory of constructive knowledge and reversed the summary judgment. The appellate court examined the relevant Civil Code statute concerning public entities.  See La. R.S. 9:2800.  As a result, the court concluded that constructive knowledge does not require circumstantial evidence proving actual knowledge; instead, the standard for constructive knowledge is satisfied if a reasonable custodian or owner should have known of the defect while exercising reasonable care.

The appellate court concluded that a material issue of fact existed as to whether or not the city had constructive knowledge of the defective rail.  When a material issue of fact exists it is inappropriate to grant a motion for summary judgement.  See Samaha v. Rue, 977 So. 2d 880 (La. 2008). While the plaintiff had submitted evidence of the deteriorating condition of the rails, including evidence of weak spots, irregular maintenance, and rusting bolts, the city had also submitted evidence of an intervening cause. A large bend in the rail and some other markings suggested that a vehicle might have backed into the handrail and caused the handrail to be defective. If the defect had been caused by an unexpected and recent car accident, then the city may have reasonably missed the defect. Given the conflicting circumstantial evidence, the appellate court concluded that the summary judgment was improper.

The case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings in which the trial court could weigh the conflicting evidence.  In doing so, the court must conclude whether the cause of the defective railing was a result of a recent incident or gradual deterioration. In the event that the cause of the defective rail was gradual deterioration, the issue becomes whether or not the city, in exercising reasonable care, should have recognized and remedied the defective railing.

Additional Sources: BERNICE WALTERS VERSUS CITY OF WEST MONROE, ET AL.

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Constructive Knowledge: Injuries, Damages Caused by Defective Sidewalks: City Can Be Held Liable