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Lamb v. Ashford Place Apartments L.L.C.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

January 30, 2019

RHONDA F. LAMB, Plaintiff-Appellant,

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

          Before SMITH, BARKSDALE, and HO, Circuit Judges.


         Rhonda Lamb alleges that she was injured by inhaling smoke and fumes from her apartment's heating unit after Ashford Place Apartments L.L.C. ("Ashford Place") replaced the unit's motor. She sued Ashford Place, Heather Bamburg, and MRC Development, L.L.C. ("MRC"), in state court, claiming that the incident gave her hyperactive airway disease. The defendants removed, then moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The court also denied Lamb's motion to amend the judgment. Lamb appeals the summary judgment and the denial of the motion to amend. We find no error and affirm.


         Lamb and Ashford Place, acting through its property manager, MRC, executed an apartment lease. About a year later, Lamb informed management that she smelled a burning odor from her heating unit. She then contacted the fire department, which investigated and determined that the odor was likely dust burning off of the heating unit. Bruce Robinson, Ashford Place's head of maintenance, also checked the heating unit and agreed that the odor was dust burning off of the heating unit's coils.

         A day later, Lamb again reported a burning odor, whereupon Ashford Place contacted Delancey Service Company, which inspected the heating unit and recommended replacing the motor. Robinson installed a new motor that afternoon. Defendants maintain that thereafter the heating unit was functioning properly.

         According to Bamburg, Ashford Place's property manager, Lamb called her later that evening again to report an odor. Bamburg dispatched Robinson, who did not find anything wrong with the heating unit and did not smell any odors. Some time later, Lamb started the heating unit and alleges that she "was suddenly overcome by smoke fumes." Lamb called management to report the burning odor and also summoned the fire department. Bamburg maintains that she and Robinson went to inspect the apartment after receiving Lamb's call.

         The fire department arrived, treated Lamb, and checked the apartment and found light smoke and two Ashford Place maintenance persons ventilating the space. The maintenance persons stated that the "furnace fan motor overheated." An emergency medical vehicle took Lamb to the hospital, after which she stayed at a hotel that night.

         Two days after the original incident, Robinson replaced the heating unit's motor a second time, after which there were no further issues with the unit. That same day, Ashford Place contacted a maintenance company to clean the ducts in Lamb's apartment. Lamb stayed in a hotel again that night and returned to her apartment.


         Lamb sued, alleging that she suffers "from hyperactive airway disease as a result of the inhalation of smoke and nauseous fumes emitting from the defective air conditioning/heating unit." She claims that her injuries "were not the result of the first reported incident of smoke smell which was addressed with a replacement motor, but after Ashford Place maintenance employees replaced that blower motor." The replacement motor, Lamb asserts, "was either installed improperly, or was the wrong part, leading to its burning out and creating the noxious smoke that caused [her] injuries."

         In granting summary judgment, the district court first determined that, according to the lease, Lamb assumed responsibility for the leased premises, and thus, under La. Stat. Ann. § 9:3221, defendants were not liable for any alleged defects or injuries unless they "knew or should have known of the defect or had received notice thereof and failed to remedy it within a reasonable time." The court then analyzed each statutory factor necessary to impose liability, determining that there was no genuine dispute that (1) defendants did not know "of a specific defect before [Lamb] suffered her alleged injuries," (2) defendants did not fail to remedy the defect of which Lamb notified them within a reasonable time, and (3) Lamb provided "no evidence of when, how, or why [d]efendants should have known, before she reported fumes, that Robinson installed the first replacement motor incorrectly or that [he] installed either the wrong motor or a defective motor."

         The district court denied Lamb's motion to amend the judgment under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On appeal, Lamb contends that the district court erred (1) by granting summary judgment on all issues when the motion for summary judgment addressed only strict liability claims and not negligence claims; (2) by incorrectly interpreting La. Stat. Ann. § 9:3221 and incorrectly applying its elements to the facts; (3) by incorrectly placing the burden of proof on Lamb to disprove the affirmative defense of ...

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