An insurance company found itself on the defending side of a civil claim but not for the reason one might expect. Larry Modicue, a Louisiana man weighing 404 pounds, filed a claim against State Farm Casualty & Fire Insurance and its representative Rose Kennedy when the chair Ms. Kennedy offered him collapsed under his weight. The Fourth Judicial District Court granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and the Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit affirmed.
Mr. Modicue alleged that the incident in which his chair collapsed was an example of res ipsa loquitor. This common law phenomenon is found when a court deems that a particular incident or accident is the type that does not occur without negligence on behalf of some actor. Res ipsa loquitor means “the thing speaks for itself” in Latin and is a way for a plaintiff to prove the duty and breach prongs of a negligence case. As a review, a prima facie negligence case requires four essential elements: duty, breach, causation and harm. A plaintiff must prove each of these elements in order for a case to proceed to the trier of fact, whether judge or jury.
The appellate court reviewed the granting of a summary judgment de novo meaning that the appellate court could consider all things that the trial court could have considered in rendering its decision. The appellate court reviewed Louisiana C.C. art. 2317.1 in determining the outcome of this case. This statute places liability on the owner or custodian of a thing when that person knew or should have known through the exercise of reasonable care that a particular condition existed when it is determined that the condition caused damage to a plaintiff and the custodian or owner could have remedied the condition with reasonable care. Liability attaches if that care was not exercised. This statute is a reflection of traditional negligence principles. If a party has exclusive control over an object it is responsible for conditions in that object that cause harm to others. It is interesting to note that this statute goes on to specifically note that nothing in it should be construed to prevent a court from applying res ipsa loquitor. The appellate court found that Ms. Kennedy had no reason to know that this particular chair would give out under Mr. Modicue’s weight since it had held him without incident on a previous occasion.
The Court of Appeal went on to dismiss the plaintiff’s allegation that res ipsa loquitor applied to this situation. The court noted that Harper v. Advantage Gaming, 880 So. 2d 948 clarifies the situations in which res ipsa loquitor applies. That case required a court to find unusual circumstances such that, in the absence of other evidence, there was an inference of negligence on the part of the defendant. In conjunction with this the defendant must have had exclusive control over the object that caused the injury. These circumstances must lead to the finding that the only reasonable conclusion is that the defendant breached a duty to the plaintiff and that this was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
The court in this case found that due to Mr. Modicue’s weight, there was more than one potential explanation for the chair’s failure. The court went on to explain that Mr. Modicue had not provided enough evidence to get the issue of the defendants’ negligence to the jury. As such, the defendants were entitled to a summary judgment as a matter of law. Mr. Modicue’s reliance on res ipsa loquitor caused his negligence claim to fail. Had he offered evidence of all four elements of negligence, it is possible that he would have succeeded, though it is unclear if this evidence existed.