"Pop" Goes The Sprinkler Head - And The Plaintiff's Case

 

Over two years after Hibernia National Bank opened a branch in New Orleans East in 1996, Esther Lingoni tripped over a landscape sprinkler head located at the intersection of two sidewalks and was injured. Ms. Ligoni sued Hibernia and its insurer, St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company, its architect for the project, Sizeler Architects, Inc. (Sizeler), the project landscape architect, Daly-Sublette Landscape Design & Development, Inc. (Daly-Sublette), the general contractor, Shamrock Construction Co., Inc. (Shamrock), and the landscape contractor, Paradise Gardens Landscaping, Inc. (Paradise). Ms. Ligoni argued that the defendants were liable to her because the sprinkler head was located too close to the sidewalk and posed an unreasonable risk of harm. Ms. Ligoni settled with Hibernia and its insurer. The other defendants moved for summary judgment under Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 966 (pdf)

The design professionals, Sizeler and Daly-Sublette, argued that Ms. Ligoni did not have an expert who would testify regarding the professional standards of architects or landscape architects. Therefore, she did not have any evidence that they breached a duty owed to Ms. Ligoni. Additionally, they argued that her only expert was a safety expert whose only document was that her trip and fall was probably caused by a defective sprinkler “pop-up head” that was in the up position when the accident occurred. 

For their part, the contractors, Shamrock and Paradise, argued they were immune from liability under Louisiana Revised Statute 9§2771 (pdf) because they followed plans and specifications provided to them by a third-party. Under that statute, a contractor cannot be liable for damage or destruction caused by following plans and specifications provided to it by a third-party. A contractor, however, may not be shielded from liability if the plans and specifications are obviously defective and a reasonable contractor would know that following the plans and specifications would result in an unsafe or substandard condition. The trial court granted the motions and dismissed Ms. Ligoni’s claims.

On appeal, Ms. Ligoni argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether the plans and specifications were properly prepared and whether the installation of the sprinkler system was in compliance with the plans and specifications. Additionally, Ms. Ligoni argued that expert testimony was not required in a case where common sense would dictate whether the sprinkler head was too close to the sidewalk and presented a tripping hazard. 

In affirming the dismissal, the appellate court noted that both of the contractors presented evidence that neither of them played any part in the preparation of the plans and specifications for the project and that they each had complied with the plans and specifications provided to them.  Moreover, there was no evidence that the plans and specifications were defective or that compliance with them created a dangerous condition. In addition, because the accident occurred two years after installation, after project approval, after the expiration of project warranties, and while another company was maintaining the premises, there was no evidence that the condition that allegedly caused the accident was the same that existed when the project was completed. Therefore, the district court did not err in finding that the contractor defendants met their burden or persuasion and that the plaintiff did not present evidence to rebut the strong showing made by them. 

As to the design professionals, Sizeler and Daley-Sublette, the appellate court also affirmed the summary judgment as to them, because Ms. Ligoni had no evidence that either of them had breached a professional duty or that their services fell below the local standard of care for similar professionals. Critically, the appellate court agreed with the district court that she failed to present credible evidence in support of her case. In fact, her own expert was of the opinion that her accident was, more likely than not, caused by a defective or broken sprinkler head that was in the up position. Her expert, although not a design professional, did not suggest that the location of the sprinkler was improper or that the location was the cause the accident. Accordingly, the appellate court found no error in the district court’s ruling.

Take-Away: Contractors may be shielded from liability for slip and fall claims when they follow plans and specifications provided to them by a third party and the plans and specifications themselves are not obviously defective or a contractor should know that strict adherence would create an unreasonably dangerous condition.

 

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