BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal has issued a mixed ruling in a case in which a man sued a general contractor alleging he was injured while touring a home he considered leasing. 

In a ruling presided over by Judge Robert H. Morrison III, the court partly reversed a summary judgment dismissing claims against the contractor and remanded the case for further proceedings. 

In 2013, Irby Burleigh and Marie Burleigh filed suit after he was injured when a pull-down ladder he was using detached from the ceiling of a Denham Springs home the couple was viewing.

In their filing, the Burleighs named D.R. Horton Inc., general contractor on the home, as a defendant and sought damages for the injuries the man sustained.  The complaint further alleged that Horton's “failure to properly install the pull-down ladder and failure to inspect the work of subcontractors hired during construction of the home was a proximate cause of Mr. Burleigh's accident.”

More recently, the couple amended their complaint to add several other defendants, including John Mincey Construction, the company reported to have installed the ladder that caved on Irby Burleigh.

Nearly two years after the suit was filed, Horton filed a motion for summary judgment, insisting that the attic access ladder was installed by an independent contractor and inspected by an independent consultant, absolving the company of any liability.  Therefore, the company argued that the Burleighs claim should be dismissed since the couple would be unable to prove the company was in any way liable for any defect in the work performed.

In August 2016, a summary judgment was issued in favor of Horton leading to an appeal on the part of the plaintiffs.

In rendering its reversal of the initial verdict, the court noted, “in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the trial court's role is not to evaluate the weight of the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter, but instead to determine whether there is a genuine issue of triable fact. In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, appellate courts review evidence de novo under the same criteria that govern the trial court's determination of whether summary judgment is appropriate. Because the applicable substantive law determines materiality, whether a particular fact in dispute is material can be seen only in light of the substantive law applicable to the case.”

The court further noted that Louisiana law stipulates that "employers are answerable for the damage occasioned by their servants and overseers, in the exercise of the functions in which they are employed."

The only exception to that rule is in instances where the worker is an independent contractor.  

In remanding the matter to the trial court, the 1st Circuit further asserted “we find no merit in the Burleighs' assertion that the agreement between Horton and Mincey was an absolute nullity.”

On the contrary, the high court noted that the evidence seems unclear as to what sort of arrangement Mincey was operating under at the time of the accident.

“On de novo review of the record before us, we find that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment dismissing the claims against Horton for vicarious liability, but we find no error in the trial court's dismissal of the claims of independent negligence,” the court noted. “We therefore affirm the summary judgment dismissing the claims of independent negligence, reverse the summary judgment to the extent it dismisses the Burleighs' claims of vicarious liability against Horton, and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

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