William Daigre was killed in a single-vehicle accident when the tractor trailer he was operating left a rural roadway and rolled down a steep incline on the side of the road. Mr. Daigre’s family filed suit against the owner of the farm land adjacent to the roadway, the lessee of the land, and others for wrongful death. Mr. Daigre’s family alleged that the farming performed by the land owner and his lessee created a “drastic drop off” on the side of the road, which resulted in Mr. Daigre’s death.
The landowner and the lessee filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the basis of Louisiana Revised Statute 9:2800.4 (pdf), Louisiana’s limitation of liability statute for owners of farm or forest land. This statute provides, in part, that
"An owner of farm or forest land shall not be liable to any person, who unlawfully enters upon his farm or forest land, for damages for any injury, death, or loss which occurs while on the farm or forest land of the owner, unless such damage, injury, or death was caused by the intentional act or gross negligence of the owner.”
It was undisputed that the involved land was farm land so the only issues were whether Mr. Daigre’s had “unlawfully” entered the property, and if so, whether his death was caused by the intentional act or gross negligence of the land owner, or his lessee. The district court found that Mr. Daigre was unlawfully on the property and there was no evidence that the land owner intentionally caused his death or that his death resulted from the land owner’s gross negligence. Therefore, the court granted defendants’ motion, dismissing plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice. Plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the court addressed three issues: (1) was the area where the accident took place “farmland?” (2) was the decedent “unlawfully” on the property? (3) was Mr. Daigre’s death the result of an “intentional act” or “gross negligence” on the part of the owners/lessees? The appellate court readily found that the accident site was farmland. With respect to the second issue, there was no dispute that the decedent was driving off of the roadway when the accident occurred. However, plaintiffs contended that the momentary and inadvertent movement resulting in the decedent leaving the roadway was not an “unlawful act” as that term is defined in LSA-R.S. 9:2800.4 (pdf).
Defendants responded that Mr. Daigre had left the roadway, unlawfully, and entered their land adverse to laws requiring motorists to remain on the roadway, and that there were no allegations regarding an intervening or superseding cause forcing him from the road. The court, noting case law that held that it is unlawful to drive a vehicle on the shoulder of a road or in a roadside ditch, agreed with defendants’ position. The court further found that plaintiffs were unable to prove, and failed to argue, that there was any justifiable reason why Mr. Daigre left the road, as Mr. Daigre was deceased and there were no witnesses to the accident.
Finally, plaintiffs contended that the landowner’s removal of the foreslope adjacent to the shoulder of the road in order to create more farm land constituted an intentional act and/or gross negligence and precluded immunity under the statute. The court rejected this argument and found that the land owner did not consciously desire the physical results of their action and did not know that Mr. Daigre’s death was substantially certain to follow from the removal of the foreslope. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ case based on Louisiana’s limitation of liability statute for owners of farm or forest land.
Take-Away: Louisiana courts will not hesitate to enforce Louisiana’s limitation of liability statute for owners of farm or forest land, even when the result is the early dismissal of a plaintiff’s case.
This article was co-authored by Kerri Kane, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore, LLC.