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Blake v. City of Port Allen

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

November 20, 2014

RONNIE O. BLAKE
v.
CITY OF PORT ALLEN

On Appeal from The 18th Judicial District Court, In and for the Parish of West Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana Trial Court No. 39, 706 The Honorable William C. Dupont, Judge Presiding

Stephen M. Irving Joel G. Porter Baton Rouge, Louisiana Attorneys for Plaintiff/ Appellee, Ronnie O. Blake.

Karen Day White Baton Rouge, Louisiana Attorney for Defendant/ Appellant, City of Port Allen.

BEFORE: PARRO, McDONALD, AND CRAIN, JJ.

CRAIN, J.

The defendant appeals a judgment awarding damages in a suit arising out of a plumbing leak that developed inside the plaintiffs residence after the defendant's employees replaced a water meter at the property. We affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On February 8, 2011, at about 2:30 p.m., Ronnie Blake came home from work and found employees of the City of Port Allen working near his driveway. The City was replacing the water meter at Blake's residence as part of an ongoing project to replace outdated water meters. Blake had lived in the house for over twenty years and had never had any problems with the plumbing. Blake went inside his house, where he observed nothing unusual, and left about ten minutes later to return to work. Approximately two hours later at 4:30 p.m., Blake arrived home from work and saw water running down his driveway. The water was flowing through the doorways and underneath the house where it rests on the slab. Blake attempted to open the side door but encountered some resistance, which he soon discovered was standing water and sheetrock that had fallen from the ceiling. Once inside, he saw water coming through the ceiling of his kitchen from a joint in a pipe in the attic. Blake immediately turned off the water.

Blake's entire residence had flooded, including the kitchen, both bedrooms, and the living room. Photographs admitted into evidence at the trial show extensive water damage to the house and furnishings. The water also destroyed family photographs of Blake's children. He reported the incident to the City and hired a plumber to replace the pipe the next day. Blake later filed suit against the City, alleging that the City failed to follow proper shut-down procedures and thereby caused the failure of the joint in the pipe.[1]

The claim proceeded to a bench trial, where Blake presented his testimony along with the testimony of Dilton K. Anderson, a licensed civil engineer, who was accepted by the trial court as an expert in that field. Anderson, who has experience in commercial and residential design of plumbing systems, inspected the section of the pipe that leaked, visited Blake's residence, and reviewed the pleadings and discovery. At the conclusion of his investigation, Anderson determined that the pipe union had failed because the City employees did not properly turn the water off and on when replacing the water meter. According to Anderson, the employees turned off the water too quickly, creating a vacuum in the line in Blake's residence, which caused the rubber fitting in the union to collapse; and, after replacing the meter, turned the water on too quickly, which caused a rapid increase in the water pressure.

The City countered with the testimony of Aaron P. Landry, the City's supervisor of water and gas, and Jeremy C. Hoffpauir, a mechanical engineer. Landry confirmed the procedure that City employees are supposed to follow when replacing water meters. After checking to see if anyone is home, the employees turn off the water by closing the valve located at the meter. The employees then replace the meter, turn on an outside faucet at the house, and slowly turn the water back on by opening the valve at the meter. They ensure the meter is working and let the air "bleed" out of the system before turning off the outside faucet. Significantly, the final step in the protocol is to "[m]ake sure nothing is leaking" by looking at the meter to see if it indicates any movement of water through the line. The meter has two gauges useful for that purpose: the regular gauge, which measures water in gallons, and a more sensitive "cheater gauge, " which contains a dial that will spin if any water, even a drip, passes through the line.

Landry testified that the workers finished the work at Blake's residence at about 3:00 p.m. Although he was not present when the work was performed, Landry stated that he had no reason to believe the employees deviated from the City's protocol when they replaced Blake's water meter. The City employees who performed the work were not called as witnesses, but the parties stipulated that, if called, they would testify that they had followed the protocol when they replaced the water meter.

Landry also described his visit to Blake's residence the morning after the leak, when he saw the water damage and confirmed that "[everything was still wet." The pipe had not yet been replaced, and Landry observed the joint where the leak occurred. With Blake's assistance, Landry attempted to reproduce the leak by turning the water on, but the joint did not leak. Nevertheless, based upon the condition of the area around the joint and the damage to the ceiling beneath it, Landry agreed that it was "pretty obvious" that the fitting had leaked at some point recently.

Under cross-examination, Landry was further questioned about the City's protocol for detecting leaks after replacing a meter, as follows:

Q Now, part of the procedure is that the employees are suppose[d] to look at the cheater dial on the water meter to be sure that there's no leak?
A Yes, sir.
Q And they're suppose[d] to observe that cheater dial long enough so that if there's a leak it should show up because the meter's going to be running, right?
A Yes, sir.
Q And it's gonna show that there's a flow of water into the house and you know that there's a problem?
A Yes, sir.
Q Well, in this particular case if they had looked at the cheater valve or the cheater dial they should've seen a leak the size of the one that collapsed ...

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