Author: C. Reynolds LeBlanc

Homeowners Awarded Money Damages Against “Good Faith” Seller of In-Ground Swimming Pool

Anyone who has spent time in the humid South knows why swimming pools are popular. The Hoffmanns, Louisiana residents, tried to purchase an in-ground swimming pool to entertain their grandchildren but found the pool was far from the oasis they imagined. Recently, in Hoffmann v. B & G, Inc., 2016-1001 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/21/17), 215 So.3d 273, the First Circuit upheld an award in their favor which returned the price of the pool and additional costs related to its installation even though the seller was unaware of the problems with the pool at the time of sale.

The Hoffmanns  asserted what is known in Louisiana law as a “redhibition” claim. Redhibition allows purchasers to void a sale if the thing bought has a “vice or defect” that makes it either:

(1) useless, or

(2) so inconvenient that the buyers would not have bought the thing had they known of the problem.

When the Hoffmanns purchased the pool, the seller arranged to have it installed, which was included in the price. The Hoffmanns used the pool for two summers. However, when they uncovered the pool for its third summer of use, they discovered that the pool liner had detached. The Hoffmanns later learned that the manufacturer no longer recommended their specific pool to be installed completely in-ground.

With redhibition, “good faith” sellers (sellers who did not know of the defect) must be given the chance to repair or replace the defective thing. Instead of repairing the pool, the seller of the Hoffmanns’ pool arranged for a new pool to be installed by a third party. Unfortunately, this second “replacement” pool also failed, this time because of an installation issue.  After the second pool failed, the Hoffmanns filed suit.

The pool company argued that the Hoffmanns could not support a redhibition claim because the second pool they provided did not have a defect, but instead failed because of faulty installation. It claimed that it discharged its redhibition duties with respect to the first pool when it replaced the pool. The court disagreed and found that the “object” of the sale was a functioning in-ground swimming pool and that, after all of the efforts to repair and/or replace the original pool, the Hoffmanns still did not have a “defect-free useable in-ground swimming pool.”

The Hoffmanns won, making their summer a little more bearable.

Who Gives a Fuss about an Oxford Comma?

Who Gives a Fuss about an Oxford Comma?

Some judges do. And a missing comma might cost $10 million.

By: C. Reynolds LeBlanc

Let’s take a trip back to middle school for a quick grammar review. Before I was a lawyer, I taught English. Diligently, I taught my students the importance of proper comma usage but never imagined that the fate of a multi-million dollar lawsuit would rest on how this simple mark on the page can change the meaning of a sentence.

As I taught my students, the Oxford comma comes into play when you have a series of words, phrases, or clauses. Take a look at the previous sentence. I used an Oxford comma. It is the one between “phrases” and “or.” People who like the Oxford comma say that it makes it easier for the reader to understand what the author is trying to say.

Not everyone thinks the comma is necessary. Every now and then, a student, whose curiosity would override their fear of appearing “too interested” in grammar, would ask, “Why do you even need a comma if you can tell what the author is trying to say without it?” It is a good question, and grammar nerds have been arguing about its answer for more than a century.

But the Oxford comma can make a dramatic difference. Consider these two sentences:

Darren is excited about his vacation with his wife, his best friend, and his cousin.

vs.

Darren is excited about his vacation with his wife, his best friend and his cousin.

Here, the Oxford comma makes all the difference. It distinguishes between (1) a nice vacation Darren will have with three other people and (2) an awkward situation where Darren should be advised that he is living a weird, taboo lifestyle and that his marriage to his best friend and cousin is absolutely null under La. C.C. art. 94.  While we can safely assume that Darren was excited about a group trip, this example makes the point.

In O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F. 3d 69 (1 Cir. 3/13/17), a federal court refused to make a similar assumption, and it might cost more than $10 million, all because a statute did not use an Oxford comma. In O’Connor, dairy truck drivers filed a lawsuit to recover overtime pay. In Maine, overtime pay law does not apply to “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” food.

The defendant (the Oakhurst dairy) argued that the case should be dismissed because the drivers were involved in the “distribution of” food and were not entitled to overtime pay. The district court agreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the drivers countered that because there was no Oxford comma after “shipment,” the statute only applied to the act of “packing” food (for shipment or distribution), which they did not do. An Oxford comma would have made the dairy’s argument correct and the case would have been dismissed. However, no comma was used and the federal court of appeals found that the statute was ambiguous. The case was sent back to district court, where the dairy may now get squeezed for someone else’s $10 million comma omission.

Maybe the Maine legislators should have paid a little more attention in class.

Louisiana Courts Continue Re-Establishment of the Open and Obvious Defense

Under traditional Louisiana law, if somebody tripped and fell, the property owner would not be liable for an injury (1) if the person reasonably should have seen the thing that caused them to fall or (2) if it was as obvious to the person as it was to the property owner. Stated another way, if the alleged condition was “open” and “obvious,” then that condition could not be “unreasonably dangerous,” and the property owner would not be liable. This thinking formed the basis of the “open and obvious defense” in Louisiana law.

A few years ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a ruling in Broussard v. State, 2012-1238 (La. 2013), 113 So.3d 175 that raised doubts about the usefulness of the open and obvious defense. However, recent decisions by the Louisiana Supreme Court and various courts of appeal have clarified that the open and obvious defense is not dead.

A recent example of this trend is seen in Morel v. Cheema Properties, LLC, 16-666 (La. App. 5 Cir. 4/12/17), — So.3d —. This case involved a trip-and-fall accident at a gas station. On her way inside to pay for her gas, an elderly plaintiff saw two hoses next to a curb where she stepped up to enter the store. When she exited the store, she saw that the two hoses had separated and now blocked her path. She fell and was injured when she tried to navigate through these hoses. The property owner asserted the open and obvious defense and plaintiff’s suit was dismissed.

The court found that the plaintiff “was aware of the open and obvious risk” and that she fell while attempting to step over the hoses. The court observed that the plaintiff could have avoided the risk by asking for assistance or for the hoses to be moved. To the court, it was significant “that the plaintiff saw the hoses and was aware that the hoses could cause her to fall.” Therefore, because the alleged condition was open and obvious, it did not present an unreasonable risk.

This recent Fifth Circuit decision is consistent with recent trends in Louisiana law and shows that the open and obvious defense remains alive and well.

Can a Corporation Drive Drunk?: A Look at Employer Liability for Punitive Damages

The power to punish is generally the role of the criminal courts. Civil courts concern themselves with making a plaintiff “whole.” In fact, it would be legal error for a civil court to impose recovery against a defendant as a form of punishment–with one notable exception. When “punitive damages” are allowed, a civil court may “punish” a defendant.

Grounds for Appeal: Preparing for Round Two

phone retnolds post

Lawsuits begin in the trial court. For that reason, the immediate focus remains in the trial court where the case will be decided by the jury or the trial judge. However, once the judgment is entered or the verdict reached, the focus quickly shifts to the appeals court. In many cases, what happens in the trial court is just “round one” and cases are often truly decided on appeal. This post will help to identify the types of issues considered when there is an appeal.

LESS THAN OBVIOUS STATE OF “OPEN AND OBVIOUS” DEFENSE

The “open and obvious” defense remains alive and well in Louisiana according to an article penned recently by  Professor John M. Church of the LSU Law Center for the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel. In April 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court announced Broussard v. State of Louisiana, 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13), 113 So.3d 175, which muddied the waters regarding use of the “open and obvious” defense. Some read Broussard as a pronouncement that the “open and obvious” defense was essentially dead in Louisiana. However, as reflected in Professor Church’s article, subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decisions have given new life to the defense.

Claims for Negligent Spoliation of Evidence Not Supported by Louisiana Law

In Reynolds v. Bordelon, 2014-2362 (La. 6/30/15), — So.3d—, 2015 WL 3972370, the Louisiana Supreme Court definitively ruled that Louisiana law does not recognize a cause of action for negligent spoliation of evidence. This resolved a disputed issue of Louisiana law.

The Reynolds plaintiff was involved in a multi-car accident in which his airbag failed to deploy. His insurance company paid what was owed for the totaled vehicle under its policy and, in the normal course of business, disposed of the vehicle by auctioning it to a salvage yard. Plaintiff’s petition included a claim against the auto manufacturer for the airbag failure. It also included a claim against his insurance company and the salvage yard for failure to preserve the vehicle as evidence likely to be used in litigation.

A More “Direct Action”

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently announced a decision that could alter the impact of Louisiana’s “Direct Action Statute.” See Soileau v. Smith True Value and Rental, et. al., 2012-1711, — So. 3d —.

In Soileau, the injured plaintiff initiated suit after a John Deere front-end loader malfunctioned. She settled with a number of parties but proceeded to trial against the store from which the machinery was rented, the store’s owners (collectively, the Smiths) and the Smiths’ insurer, Hartford Insurance Company.

Parish Finds Debris Clean-Up Doesn’t Come For Free

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that St. Tammany Parish must pay for hurricane clean-up services even though it had no formal contract with the party that did the work. See USA Disaster Discovery, Inc. v. St. Tammany Parish Government, 2013-0656, — So.3d —.

Fallen trees and loose debris were familiar sights across Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Immediately after the storm, emergency protocols were followed to rescue those trapped in their homes or in other buildings. To perform search and rescue, trees and debris had to be cleared. This duty fell to the Sheriff’s office under St. Tammany’s emergency operation plan. However, neither the Parish nor the Sheriff’s office had the necessary resources. Therefore, the Parish contracted with various entities to help clear the debris.