Carla Boutin brought a negligence action against the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, St. Joseph Catholic Church, and their insurer, Catholic Mutual Group, for injuries sustained as a result of falling down a set of stairs while exiting a church. She claimed that the surface near the church stairs was uneven, causing her to trip and fall. The trial court rejected Ms. Boutin’s arguments and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The appellate court affirmed and held that the plaintiff could not establish that a defect existed in the steps that posed an unreasonable risk of harm, nor could she establish that the defendants knew or should have known about the defect prior to the incident.
Under Louisiana law, a person alleging the negligence or strict liability of a building owner must prove: (1) the property presented an unreasonable risk of harm; (2) the building owner knew or should have known of the defect; and (3) the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and the owner failed to exercise such reasonable care. To prove the second element, a person must establish that the building owner either knew of the defect or through the exercise of ordinary care and diligence should have been aware of the defect that gave rise to the injury. In this case, Ms. Boutin failed to prove that the stairs presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The appellate court noted that photographs reflecting the condition of the steps established that they were not broken, missing, slanted, or uneven. Moreover, affidavits from two church officials responsible for the maintenance and care of the building established that the defendants were not aware of any alleged defect in the steps. Ms. Boutin on the other hand failed to offer any factual evidence in support of her claim. In light of these facts, the court concluded that even if the stairs presented an unreasonable risk of harm, “there is no reason to conclude that such defect, which is not discernable from the photographs, should have been discovered by the defendants by reasonable inspection."
Take-Away: Although building owners are only responsible for a defect in their premises if they knew or should have known of the defect at the time of the accident, in order to minimize personal injury claims arising out of a fall on the premises, owners should carefully monitor the condition of their property and remedy any defects that may manifest themselves.
This article was co-authored by David Moore, Jr., a 2015 summer associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.