People rely on public services daily, from fire departments to police officers. But what happens if a public entity is responsible for an injury? Can they be held liable for negligence? A recent case out of Grand Isle, Louisiana, shows how public entities can be shielded from liability for negligent conduct in some circumstances. It also helps answer the question; Can a state fire marshall be liable for inspector negligence in a wrongful death lawsuit in Louisiana?
In 2012 a fire in the Willow Creek Apartments in Grand Isle, Louisiana, killed two occupants, Belle Christin Brandl, and Timothy Joseph Foret. Brandl’s three children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the apartment’s owners, Steven Caruso and Willow Creek, L.L.C., their insurers, and the State of Louisiana through the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Office of the State Fire Marshal (SFM) and its inspector. The plaintiffs argued Marchiafava as an inspector, failed to properly look into reports of fire hazards that caused the fire, failed to notify the building owners of any hazard and resolve the hazard, and falsified reports regarding his inspection of the Willow Creek building. SFM and the inspector denied the allegations arguing the inspector did investigate an unverified public complaint at the building, which revealed no serious life hazards. Further, the residents of the building did not have any further complaints of hazards.
SFM and the inspector filed an exception of no cause of action on the grounds SFM and the inspector did not owe a legal obligation, otherwise known as a duty, to the plaintiffs. The trial judge granted the exception. Then SFM and the inspector filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, which was granted, and the plaintiffs filed an appeal.
Upon review, the courts agreed even if the inspector failed to inspect the building properly, that would not be enough evidence to support a negligence claim. La. R.S. 9:2798.1 protects public entities from liability when their employees act under their own discretion. This is because the courts do not want to impose on legislative policy formation by imposing liability on public entities for discretionary decisions.
In this case, SFM is a public entity that is shielded from any liability for the negligence of its employees so long as the employee had a legal obligation to the general public rather than a specific individual. Dufrene v. Guarino. The court found the inspector was acting under his discretion per La. R.S. 40:1563(C). That law provides a fire marshal may, at his discretion, report any complaint from a citizen to the appropriate fire prevention bureau, and the fire marshal may conduct a joint inspection with the fire prevention bureau. In this case, the inspector used his discretion to contact the Grand Isle Fire Chief to conduct a fire inspection of the apartment building.
Further, the court disagreed the inspector’s falsified records were a negligent act that led to the fire. The court reasoned facts demonstrate the inspector had falsified his records to show he did a second inspection of the apartment only after the fire happened. Meaning the inspector’s misconduct could not have led to the fire because he made the false report after it had already happened.
This case demonstrates public entities tend to be protected from negligence liability. Especially so when their employees act with discretion and owe a general legal obligation to the public. Conversely, public entities are more likely to be liable for negligence cases when they owe a legal obligation to a specific person, which is a higher standard to meet for a plaintiff. A complex case with complex legal issues such as this requires a skilled lawyer.
Additional Sources: CLAIRE COCHRAN, ET AL VERSUS STEVEN CARUSO, WILLOW CREEK, L.L.C., LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND CORRECTIONS, OFFICE OF THE STATE FIRE MARSHALL, NUNZIO MARCHIAFAVA, AND WESTERN HERITAGE INSURANCE CO.
Written by Berniard Law Firm
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