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Gauthier v. Foster Homes, LLC

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

November 20, 2019

LYNDA B. GAUTHIER Plaintiff-Appellant

          Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Trial Court No. 596, 211-B Honorable Craig O. Marcotte, Judge

          CHARLES ELLIOTT & ASSOC., LLC By: Charles D. Elliott Counsel for Appellant.

          MAYER, SMITH & ROBERTS, L.L.P. By: Caldwell Roberts, Jr. Counsel for Appellee, Foster Homes, LLC

          Before PITMAN, GARRETT, and STEPHENS, JJ.

          PITMAN, J.

         Plaintiff Lynda B. Gauthier appeals the judgment of the trial court granting a motion for summary judgment in favor of Defendant Foster Homes, LLC, and dismissing her suit against it. For the following reasons, we affirm.


         Plaintiff is a 67-year-old woman who is a multiple myeloma cancer survivor. On December 6, 2015, her home on Flournoy Lucas Road in Shreveport caught fire and was rendered uninhabitable. She contacted her homeowner's insurer, State Farm Fire & Casualty Company ("State Farm"), whose policy included loss of use coverage. She expressed her wish to remain on her property during the home restoration process, so her agent informed her that Defendant could provide her with temporary housing on her property. She contacted Defendant, and a mobile home was delivered to her.

         The mobile home was set up on her lot around January 8, 2016. Although there is some question as to whether Plaintiff requested a handicap ramp to be placed beside the mobile home, Defendant installed a ramp to the left of the front door, parallel to the home. The ramp was virtually useless since the door to the mobile home opened outward, from right to left, instead of opening inward. There were stairs which led straight up to the door, with a handrail on the right side. There was no handrail on the left side of the stairs, presumably because the ramp was located there. The stairs ended at the door in a landing, but the landing was shallow so that when the door opened outward, there was very little room left on the landing for a person to stand while opening the door.

         On January 22, 2016, as Plaintiff entered the home, she opened the door and tried to navigate the stairs and door. When she opened the door, she fell backward four feet off the landing, hitting the ground on her left side and on her head. She had an excruciating headache all day and night; the next morning she contacted her son and told him what had happened. He took her to the emergency room at Christus Schumpert Hospital in Shreveport where she was found to be almost unresponsive. A CAT scan was performed, and she was diagnosed with a life-threatening acute subdural hematoma and was transferred to University Health for emergency brain surgery. She spent several days recovering in the intensive care unit and several weeks in the hospital, including time at in-patient rehabilitation.

         Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant and her insurer, State Farm, alleging that, as lessor, Defendant was strictly liable to her and that the outward opening door and limited landing created a dangerous situation and an unreasonable risk of harm. State Farm filed a peremptory exception of no cause of action, which was granted, and it was dismissed from the suit. Defendant responded that Plaintiff was at fault and that the condition of which she complained did not present an unreasonable risk of harm pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2317. Further, Defendant claimed that it did not have care, custody or control of any unreasonably dangerous condition and did not have actual or constructive knowledge of any unreasonably dangerous condition as required by La. C.C. art. 2317.1.

         Plaintiff hired new counsel, who retained the services of engineering expert Philip Beard, who inspected the landing, steps, ramp and handrail. Beard prepared a report, signed an affidavit stating his findings and was deposed concerning those findings. His affidavit, prepared prior to his deposition, states that the landing was 39 inches wide and 38 inches deep. He determined that, with the door being opened to 45 degrees, from right to left, there were only 16.56 inches left on the landing for a person to stand while opening the door. He drew diagrams with the measurements of the position of the door and the depth of the landing and concluded that "the small distance between Mrs. Gauthier and the landing edge created an unreasonable risk of harm and increased the likelihood of a misstep." He also opined that if a handrail had been on the left side, instead of the right, Plaintiff might have been able to reach back and grab it; however, because it was on the right, she was unable to stop her fall.

         In his deposition, when questioned about which building codes were applicable to mobile homes, Beard replied that he used the International Residential Code ("IRC") and the International Building Code and opined that the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") might apply, but was unsure, stating, "That's an interesting question and I'm not sure I can give you an answer. . . without further research." He was asked about the IRC section which was copied and attached to his report, specifically Section R311.1 dealing with egress, which stated that every landing shall have a minimum dimension of 36 inches measured in the direction of travel. He confirmed that the section required a landing of at least 36 inches. He was asked whether, had there not been a ramp attached to the stairs, would the landing and staircase have complied with the IRC, and he answered, "With respect to the thirty-six by thirty-six inch dimension, yes, that's correct." Other questions were posed regarding the position of the ramp, the slope of the ramp and its relation to the landing. He testified that had the ramp been installed on the right side of the door, its use would have caused a noncompliance with the IRC code. He agreed that if the ramp were used as part of the landing, the slope of the ramp would violate Section R311.1.

         After further discovery was completed, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment alleging Plaintiff admitted in deposition that the ramp had nothing to do with the accident since she had entered the home by walking up the steps at the time the incident occurred. Defendant also claimed that Plaintiff's liability expert, Beard, testified in his deposition that the size of the landing was inadequate, but admitted that it did not violate any applicable building codes in the IRC. Defendant further claimed that because the size of the landing complied with applicable building codes, no reasonable juror could find that the landing ...

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