In the recent case of Riedel v. Fenasci,
2018-0540 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/28/18), _______ So. 3d _______, 2018 WL 6818716,
home buyers sued the sellers and the involved real estate agents after mold was
discovered shortly following the sale. This is a common fact pattern in humid
South Louisiana. The buyers lost in the trial court when there was no evidence
that the sellers or the agents knew of the problem. The result was affirmed by
the First Circuit Court of Appeal.
The Riedels identified mold weeks after
the closing and filed a claim with their homeowner’s insurer. But the claim was
denied when the insurer’s inspection revealed long- term damage, rot, and
deterioration in a ceiling due to water damage. That finding prompted the
Against the sellers, the Riedels contended
that they “had to have known” about the moisture and mold in the home prior to
the sale. Because the home was sold “as is,” they had to establish fraud
to recover. However, the sellers had not lived in the home for years and had
received no complaints from tenants over this time. Under such facts, the claim
of fraud was not supported.
The Riedels also sued both agents for negligent misrepresentation, and their own agent for breach of fiduciary duty. In assessing the claim against the agents, the Riedel Court agreed that real estate agents are liable for negligent misrepresentation when they fail to disclose hidden defects in the property which were known or should have been known to them. The Court also agreed that a purchaser’s real estate agent owes a fiduciary duty, the highest duty of care recognized by law. Nevertheless, when the plaintiffs’ own inspector found no visible evidence of mold prior to the sale and there was no indication that the agents possessed prior knowledge of the mold, the claim against the agents was also dismissed.
Marty Golden has been practicing law based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for over thirty years, concentrating in civil litigation primarily involving injuries, property damage, insurance coverage, and contract disputes. Much of his practice is defending and advising real estate agents in suits by property buyers and sellers, but Marty also defends other professionals, insurance companies, manufacturers, and business owners. Marty has a special interest in all things procedural, because they are the rules of the road for litigators and knowing them better than his opponent gives him a leg up in court.
When Casey Krueger and his family went to the pool at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Baton Rouge, they knew how they wanted to end their day. What the Kruegers (and La Quinta) did not know was that a piece of clear, broken glass was on the bottom of the pool. Mr. Krueger stepped on the glass and experienced a “large and deep cut” that caused permanent loss of some function of his toe. He filed suit alleging that La Quinta was negligent for the defective condition in its pool. Krueger v. La. Quinta Inn & Suites, 18-0052 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/21/18). He also alleged the negligence of La Quinta was self- evident such that the doctrine of res ispa loquitur should apply to impose liability. His claims were rejected by the jury; the Louisiana First Circuit upheld the verdict.
“Res ipsa loquitur” is a Latin phrase that means “the thing speaks for itself.” The doctrine of res ipsa is used where a plaintiff relies solely upon circumstantial evidence to prove negligence. For res ipsa to apply, the plaintiff must: 1) prove that the injury is the kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence; 2) eliminate other more probable causes of the injury (such as the conduct of the plaintiff or of third-persons); and 3) show that the negligence of the defendant fell within the scope of the duty owed to the plaintiff. Res ipsa is often cited where the defendant possessed exclusive control of the thing which caused the injury. Id.
In the Krueger case, La Quinta checked the pool twice a day and posted signs that banned glass from the pool area. There was also no evidence that it knew or should have known of the glass in the pool. After all, clear glass in a clear pool is hard to detect. Lacking direct evidence of negligence, the Kruegers hoped the res ipsa doctrine would make their case. With some justification, they contended that broken glass was not to be expected in a hotel pool. However, res ipsa was found not to apply. Because it was “possible that a third party caused broken glass to enter the pool,” the plaintiffs could not establish all three elements to the doctrine.
Collin is a Keogh Cox partner who litigates injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all too active children. He is an outdoorsman, a league tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.
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.