Parish of Lafayette Found Not Liable for Inmate’s Injury

prison-door-1515179-683x1024Law abiding citizen or not, people expect local governments to keep them safe, especially from dangerous conditions on public property.  But, just how much responsibility do local governments have in keeping public grounds safe?  This question was recently answered in a case coming out of Lafayette Parish.

On November 15, 2012, Summer Hunter, an inmate at Lafayette Parish Correctional Facility, was injured while being transported to the courthouse.  Prior to the transfer, Ms. Hunter was handcuffed and shackled at the legs.  Ms. Hunter was being escorted across the street by a deputy when her leg shackles became entangled on an expansion joint between slabs of the sidewalk.  This caused Ms. Hunter to fall, resulting in a fractured ankle.

On November 13, 2013, Ms. Hunter filed a lawsuit in the Fifteenth Judicial District Court against the Lafayette Consolidated Government (“The Parish”) for injuries sustained as a result of the fall.  In response, the Parish filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Hunter’s claim.  The Parish asserted that it could not liable for Ms. Hunter’s injuries because it was not aware of any problem with the sidewalk prior to the date of her accident.  The District Court granted the Parish’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that Ms. Hunter lacked the ability to present any evidence that the Parish had notice of the dangerous sidewalk.  The District Court acknowledged that cities have a responsibility to keep its sidewalk reasonably safe, however, reasonably safe and perfect condition are not synonymous.

Obviously dissatisfied with the decision of the District Court, Ms. Hunter appealed the ruling to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.  Ms. Hunter claimed that the District Court erred in determining that she was unable to produce evidence that the Parish had prior notice of the defective sidewalk and that the District Court erred by refusing to allow her additional time to investigate.

In Louisiana, a public entity is responsible for damages caused by the condition of property within its care and custody. See La. C.C. art. 2317; La. R.S. 9:2800(A).  However, there is no liability imposed on a public entity for damages caused by the condition of property unless the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous defect.  In order for a plaintiff to recover damages for injuries caused by dangerous defects on public property they must establish that: (1) the public entity had custody of the property; (2) the condition created an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) the public entity had knowledge and did not take protective measures within a reasonable time; (4) the defect actually caused the injuries sustained.  See Davis v. State ex rel. Dep’t of Transp. & Dev., 78 So.3d 190, 196 (La. Ct. App. 2011).     

In support of its motion to dismiss Ms. Hunter’s case, the Parish submitted an affidavit by the street superintendent, Brian Smith.  In the affidavit, Mr. Smith testified that all defects or problems are to be reported immediately and that the first complaint ever received concerning the expansion joint which caused Ms. Hunter’s injuries was not reported until the day after her accident.  The Third Circuit confirmed that Mr. Smith’s affidavit demonstrated a lack of factual evidence of prior notice.  Because Ms. Hunter had the burden of proof at trial, she must have produced sufficient evidence to show that she could satisfy her burden of proving prior notice at trial.  The Third Circuit held that the record lacked any evidence of prior notice of the defective sidewalk.  Ms. Hunter did argue that there was constructive knowledge by the Parish due to the fact that the sidewalk was repaired shortly after her fall.  The Third Circuit rejected this argument, noting that there was no evidence produced that the repair was planned before her accident. Although a public entity is deemed to have constructive notice when a defect has existed for a long period time, Ms. Hunter was unable to establish a case on the theory of constructive notice, because she produced no evidence indicating that the defect actually existed for any substantial length of time.  The Third Circuit ultimately held that the mere fact that the defective sidewalk existed on government property is insufficient on its own to establish a case for damages on the basis of constructive knowledge.  Thus, the ruling of the District Court dismissing Ms. Hunter’s lawsuit against the Parish was affirmed. The Court went on to assert that any holding to the contrary would nullify the notice requirement of La. R.S. 9:2800.

Although a public entity is deemed to have constructive notice when a defect has existed for a long period time, Ms. Hunter was unable to establish a case on the theory of constructive notice, because she produced no evidence indicating that the defect actually existed for any substantial length of time.  The Third Circuit ultimately held that the mere fact that the defective sidewalk existed on government property is insufficient on its own to establish a case for damages on the basis of constructive knowledge.  Thus, the ruling of the District Court dismissing Ms. Hunter’s lawsuit against the Parish was affirmed. The Court went on to assert that any holding to the contrary would nullify the notice requirement of La. R.S. 9:2800.

Establishing a legally sufficient claim against local government entities is a very challenging task. Thorough investigation and legal expertise is required for success in the courtroom when seeking to recover damages for injuries sustained due to poorly maintained public property. In order to achieve this success in the courtroom, it is important that you are represented by only the best attorney.    

Additional Sources: SUMMER HUNTER VERSUS LAFAYETTE CONSOLIDATED GOVERNMENT

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Jesse Congo

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