Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal Reverses Grant of Exception of Prescription

In Darren Dugas, et al v. Bayou Teche Water Works, et al, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal for Louisiana (“Court”) provided guidance on Louisiana statute La. R.S. 9:5624, which limits the liability of any government entity in Louisiana in connection with a public works for a two-year statutory period. The plaintiffs, the Dugas family (“Dugas plaintiffs”), sued Bayou Teche Water Works, Inc. (“Bayou Teche”) and its insurer for damages they allegedly sustained from Bayou Teche’s dumping of brine into an irrigation canal.

The Dugas plaintiffs owned a stretch of farmland along an irrigation coulee in Iberia Parish, and used the irrigation water for their farming operations. Bayou Teche, the defendant, runs a potable water treatment plant nearby. According to the petition, the Dugas plaintiffs notified Bayou Teche immediately upon discovering the discharge, but Bayou Teche continued to discharge the brine into the waterway for about a year after. After the Dugas plaintiffs brought suit, Bayou Teche answered their petition by merely stating that it was a Louisiana corporation that complied with all applicable statutes and regulations in its operation. The company subsequently filed an exception of prescription, which the trial court granted. In granting the exception, the trial court relied on La. R.S. 9:5624, which states that “[w]hen private property is damaged for public purposes any and all actions for such damages are prescribed by the prescription of two years, which shall begin to run after the completion and acceptance of the public works.” As discussed previously, the statute was adopted to limit governmental exposure from claims for damages to property when the damage is caused by a public work. Nuckolls v. Louisiana State Highway Department. The policy behind the statute is to encourage projects that provide a public purpose or benefit. The statutory period begins to run when the damage is discovered. In other words, the suit must be brought within two years after damages are sustained. Therefore, any suit that is not brought within the two-year period is barred. By granting the exception, the trial court concluded that the Dugas plaintiffs did not bring their lawsuit within the period of time set by the law.
Since the burden of proving the exception of prescription is on the movant, the ultimate issue on appeal was whether Bayou Teche met its burden of proof. After reviewing the record, the Court concluded that Bayou Teche failed to meet its evidentiary burden. The Court reasoned that the evidence introduced at the lower level only addressed the defendant’s allegations that the plaintiffs’ own negligence caused their damages. At the hearing, Bayou Teche failed to argue how it satisfied the particular elements of the statute. It did not assert it was a government entity nor explain how its water treatment plant and the dumping of brine serve a public purpose.

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