Dealing with Flood Damaged Property? Be Prepared to Show Causation

flood_fields_pasture_trees-scaledThe story of an underdog seeking justice against a powerful corporation is a familiar legal narrative. And while we may be inclined to root for the little guy, that does not relieve him from proving he has a valid case.

In Louisiana, a plaintiff will not see his case go to trial if it lacks support to overcome a motion for summary judgment. The opposing side will look for holes in the plaintiff’s claim, posing the question: if you have not produced facts suggesting I committed this offense, how will you obtain the requisite evidence to prove it at trial? Accordingly, every “essential element” of a claim requires factual support to serve as a basis for deliberation at trial. La. C.C.P. art 996(c)(2).

The Mitchells, owners of a Shapes Gym in the Parish of Ascension, faced this “make it or break it” moment of summary judgment in their case against neighboring businesses, Wal-Mart, and Aaron’s. The Mitchells alleged that the neighbors’ improperly designed and maintained stormwater drainage systems were to blame for six inches of rainwater that flooded the gym in 2009 and again during litigation of the first flood claim in 2014. 

In response, Walmart and Aaron’s filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court ultimately granted. The defendants prevailed because the Mitchells did not adequately support the foundation of their claim, negligent stormwater management. The Mitchells had relied on testimony from a Professional Engineer regarding the substandard quality of the drainage system, but her findings failed to show causation: how did the performance of the drainage system cause Shapes Gym to flood?

When the case came before Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal, the propriety of granting summary judgment was re-examined. This involved a two-part inquiry:

  1. Do the facts support an inference that poor stormwater management caused the flooding of Shapes Gym? (In legal parlance, does res ipsa loquitor apply?)
  2. Is the expert testimony sufficient to establish that some act or omission by Wal-Mart/Aaron’s created the conditions that resulted in flooding?

First, for a res ipsa loquitor argument to hold, the proposed inference must be the most probable explanation for an injury, having no equally reasonable alternative. Boudreaux. The Court of Appeals found that the flooding of Shapes Gym could have been due to another cause, and it was Mitchell’s responsibility to provide evidence that it would not have occurred without Wal-Mart/Aaron’s negligence. 

In response to the second question, the Court of Appeals found that Mitchell’s engineering reports were inadequate for showing causation between the performance and maintenance of Walmart/Aaron’s drainage systems and the gym flooding. The engineer concluded that the systems were undersized and improperly maintained, and the resulting sediment buildup was causing the overflow to discharge into Shapes Gym. However, this conclusory statement lacked supporting details: the specific amount of sedimentation in the drainage areas, the evaluation criteria for determining if that amount would cause overflow, or any additional documentation like photographs depicting site conditions around the time of flooding.

Mitchell’s case against Wal-Mart et al. demonstrates the importance of performing due diligence during the pre-trial phases of litigation. A good claim relies on a thorough investigation to uncover the details courts demand, especially when a powerful adversary is prepared to challenge every issue. If you’re dealing with a “make it or break it moment” like this one, call the team at Berniard Law to get your case on the right track.

Additional Sources: Mitchells vs. Aaron’s et al

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Emily Toto

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