Sometimes what you do – or fail to do – before filing a lawsuit, can have a big impact on the final result, as Ross Lynch of Mandeville, Louisiana recently learned. Lynch owns property on Girard Street in Mandeville. Two of his neighbors own a lot directly adjacent to his property that is used by the City of Mandeville as a public parking lot. Overgrown grass and weeds were growing along the fence that separated the two lots. Until filing a lawsuit, Lynch never mentioned this problem to the neighbors or asked them to get rid of the overgrowth, which he considered to be an “obvious nuisance.”
In June 2010, Lynch entered the neighbors’ property without their permission in order to trim the grass and weeds. In the process, Lynch inadvertently fell into a four-foot deep hole that had been hidden by the dense growth. The hole was caused by a broken sewer pipe that belonged to the City of Mandeville. Lynch injured his foot and ankle and filed a lawsuit to get compensation for his injuries and reimbursement for medical bills, naming the property owners and the City of Mandeville as defendants.
Lynch argued that the property owners, as well as the City, had “constructive knowledge” of the dangerous hole on the property before he was injured because the overgrowth of weeds and grass had thoroughly hidden it and it therefore posed an unreasonable risk of danger. “Constructive knowledge” of a dangerous condition refers to the existence of facts that lead to an inference of actual knowledge of the condition. See La.R.S.9:2800(D). Lynch also argued that, because the property was used by the City as a public parking lot, it was under the control of the City, as well as of the property owners.
The property owners argued that they had no actual or constructive knowledge of the hidden hole on their property until Lynch fell into it and that his injuries were caused by his entering their property without permission and not by their failure to discover the hidden hole. The City of Mandeville argued that no one at the City knew about the hole until Lynch notified the City after he was injured.
The trial court granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment. A judge can grant summary judgment to a party when the evidence admitted before trial shows that there is no factual support for the claims of the other party and a reasonable factfinder could not decide otherwise. The party that was granted summary judgment then wins that that issue without a trial.
Lynch appealed to the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit, which affirmed the trial court decision. The appeals court held that, for Lynch to succeed in his claim against the property owners, he needed to show that they knew or should have known about the hidden hole on their property and failed to fix it. The appellate judges explained that no one knew about the hole or the broken pipe until after Lynch fell into the hole, adding that Lynch’s belief that mowing the overgrown grass and weeds would have led to the hole’s being discovered was “speculation” and not evidence that the property owners had constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition on their property. See Gifford v. Arrington, 2014-2058 (La” 11/26/14), 153 So.3d 999, 1000.
Similarly, the appellate judges explained that to succeed in his claim against the City of Mandeville, Lynch needed to show that the City had constructive or actual knowledge of the hole or broken sewer pipe before receiving Lynch’s complaint about it, and that the City had control of the area where Lynch fell. Because the City employee who took complaints and service requests about City property had signed an affidavit saying that the City first became aware of the hole when it received Lynch’s complaint, Lynch could not show actual knowledge of a dangerous condition on property controlled by the City.
Similar to his claim against the property owners, the judges held that the overgrown weeds and grass were not evidence that the City had constructive knowledge. The judges also explained that the fact that the hole was located near an area used for public parking did not show that the City had constructive knowledge.
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