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.

Two individuals, acting as a joint venture, approached a representative of the Sheriff’s office and volunteered to assist in the removal of the debris. Although these individuals did not have a contract with the Parish, they were “confident” the Parish would pay them for their services. As such, they went to work with no assurance of payment. The confident volunteers later sent bills to the Parish and the Sheriff’s office, but both refused to pay.

The joint venture incorporated itself as USA Disaster Recovery, Inc. (“USA”) and sued the Parish and Sheriff to collect the unpaid bills. The trial court found that USA provided the Parish with valuable services following the storm. Under a theory of “unjust enrichment,” it held that the Parish had to pay for the work.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling reaffirmed the five elements necessary to show that one party was “unjustly enriched” through the action of another, namely:

1) an “enrichment” of one party;

2) an “impoverishment” of the other;

3) a connection between the enrichment and the impoverishment;

4) no justification or cause for the enrichment and the impoverishment; and,

5) no other legal remedy available to the plaintiff.

On appeal, the appellate court examined the facts and held that unjust enrichment was not available because USA did not factually demonstrate criteria #2, #4 and #5. In short, the appellate court found that USA did the work at its own risk, knowing that payment was not guaranteed. Therefore, its “impoverishment” was not established.

The Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated the trial verdict. An appellate court is to review a trial court’s factual findings under a “manifest error” standard. In USA Disaster, the Supreme Court held that the appellate court incorrectly substituted its own factual findings for those of the trial court. As a result of the deference to be given to a trial court’s findings of fact, the “volunteers” in USA Disaster were rescued by an uneasy application of the unjust enrichment doctrine.

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