RAYFIELD V. MILLET MOTEL, 15-496 (LA. APP. 5 CIR. 1/27/16)

“ACT OF GOD” DEFENSE– In Rayfield v. Millet Motel, 15-496 (La.App. 5 Cir. 1/27/16), — So.3d –, 2016 WL 359227, the plaintiff filed suit after the ceiling and wall of her motel room collapsed onto her during Hurricane Isaac. The plaintiff alleged that the owner was liable because the building was defective. According to the plaintiff, the defendants should be presumed negligent based upon the fact that the hotel did not withstand the forces of the hurricane. Additionally, the plaintiff contended that motel employees should have forced her to evacuate. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted. The plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit addressed the the “force majeure”     defense. In the common law, the analogous defense is described as an “Act of God.” According to Rayfield, this defense operates to absolve a defendant in an incident when an event is as “providential…and extraordinary” as a hurricane, but only when the defendant’s conduct did not contribute to the plaintiff’s damages.

After outlining the force majeuere defense, the Rayfield court affirmed summary judgment in favor of defendants after finding that no evidence was offered to show that a defect in the building lead to the motel’s collapse.

Similarly, the court rejected the assertion that the plaintiff should have been forced to evacuate, noting that the owner of a hotel does not insure the safety of the guests. The court added that the plaintiff was a resident of the motel, not just a passing guest and that it was illogical for her to argue that the employees should force her into the streets during a hurricane.

While it appears likely under the facts in Rayfield that the court would have found for the defense even without the force majeuere defense, the court’s opinion confirms the viability of the defense moving forward.