City Cannot Claim Immunity For Hurricane Damage When Alleged Misconduct Predated Hurricane

storm_damage_oak_tree-scaledHurricanes can result in significant property damage, including flooding with contaminated water. When faced with such a situation, homeowners may wonder if they have a viable lawsuit against the responsible parties, such as the company responsible for the contaminants or the city involved in managing the wastewater system. The following case sheds light on the legal considerations surrounding property damage caused by contaminated floodwater and the potential liability of the responsible entities.

Ronald and Virginia Colson owned property in Pineville, Louisiana, that was damaged by Hurricane Gustav. They claimed their property was flooded with water contaminated with contaminates from Colfax Treating Company’s wood-treating facility. As a result, they claimed they were evicted from their home. 

Colfax had a permit to dispose of materials in Pineville’s wastewater system. The Colsons filed a lawsuit against Colfax and the City of Pineville. The Colsons claimed the City of Pineville did not timely activate pumps for evacuating waste and stormwater, failed to properly maintain or inspect these pumps, and improperly allowed Colfax to dispose of the contaminates at above-legal limits. 

The City of Pineville filed a summary judgment motion, claiming it was immune from liability under La. R.S. 29:721-39, the Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency and Disaster Assistance Act. They filed a second summary judgment motion the same day, arguing the City was not liable for flooding because other entities were solely responsible for flood control in the City of Pineville. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City of Pineville for the flooding issue but not the immunity issue. An appeal by the City followed.

Appellate courts review a trial court’s decision to grant a summary judgment motion de novo, meaning they use the same criteria as the trial court to determine if summary judgment is appropriate. Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact. See La. C.C.P. art. 966.

On appeal, the City of Pineville argued the trial court erred in only granting summary judgment with respect to the flooding. The appellate court found the trial court properly denied the City of Pineville’s summary judgment motion, arguing it was immune under the Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency and Disaster Assistance Act. Specifically, there were genuine issues of material fact about whether the Act applied here. 

Under La. R.S. 29:735, the state and cities cannot be held liable for actions undertaken as part of emergency preparedness unless it involves willful misconduct. In order to succeed in its claim of immunity, the city needed to show the applicable events occurred during the emergency. In support, the City of Pineville provided a copy of the applicable emergency declaration related to Hurricane Gustav. Here, the appellate court found there were genuine issues of material fact about the alleged actions and inactions involving the City of Pineville prior to Hurricane Gustav. 

Furthermore, the appellate court found there were genuine issues of material fact about which entity was responsible for the town’s flood control structures. As a result, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the City of Pineville for flood damage but did not find the City of Pineville was immune from liability.

If your property has been damaged by contaminated floodwater in the aftermath of a hurricane, pursuing a lawsuit against the responsible parties may be a viable option. However, success in such a lawsuit depends on various factors, including establishing causation, proving negligence or wrongful conduct, and understanding the legal immunities or defenses that may apply. 

Consulting with a skilled attorney experienced in property damage and environmental law is crucial to navigating these complex issues effectively. A knowledgeable attorney can assess the specific circumstances of your case, advise you on the legal actions available, and help you pursue the appropriate parties for compensation.

Additional Sources: Ronald Colson and Virginia Colson, et al. v. Colfax Treating Co. LLC et al.

Written By a Berniard Law Firm Writer

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