To what extent can a homeowner be held liable for hidden defects on their property? In McNeil v. Miller, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal addressed this issue in the context of a case where an HVAC repairman was injured when he attempted to use a set of pull-down stairs to access the attic of the home at issue. As the repairman was making his way up the stairs, they detached from the ceiling causing the repairman to fall. The evidence established that the stairs were only attached to the ceiling with 2 to 4 nails and that the homeowner knew nothing about the defect. The repairman sued the homeowner and his insurer in the 22nd Judicial District Court for the Parish of St. Tammany for damages and injuries sustained due to the defective attic stairs. Thereafter, the defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that the repairman could not carry his burden to prove that the homeowner either knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the alleged defect.(pdf) Judge William J. Burris granted the motion finding that there was no issue of fact on this question.
The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s judgment, but the First Circuit affirmed. The court found insufficient evidence that the homeowner could have discovered that the attic stairs were only minimally attached to the ceiling and further refused to impute the alleged negligence on the part of the home inspector for failing to discover this defect to the homeowner in the absence of proof of a “special vicarious relationship.
Take-Away: This case demonstrates that even where an accident takes place on the property of a home or building owner, a powerful defense can be mounted when the accident resulted from a hidden defect that could not have been discovered in the normal course of affairs. It further demonstrates that a property owner should not take on an affirmative role in directing an otherwise competent building inspector in performing his duties as this might create a “special relationship” through which the liability of the inspector might be imputed to the property owner.
This article was co-authored by Christopher H. Irwin, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC