CALOGERO, Chief Justice.
The issue in this case is whether Louisiana law recognizes a "repairman" exception to an owner's strict liability for injury caused by a vice, defect or ruin on his premises. The jury concluded that defendant Union Oil Company was strictly liable for injuries suffered by plaintiff Leroy Celestine, a welder employed by an independent contractor hired by Union, when a handrail fell onto his back while he was performing maintenance and repair work. The Third Circuit Court of Appeal reversed, holding that an owner is not strictly liable to a repairman for injuries caused directly by the defect, vice or ruin under repair. Although several Louisiana courts of appeal and the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have addressed the issue of the repairman exception, it is a matter of first impression in this Court. After reviewing the arguments of counsel, the applicable principles of law and the record herein, we hold that an owner is strictly liable to a repairman for injury caused by a vice, defect or ruin on his premises only where the defect therein poses an unreasonable risk of harm vis-a-vis the repairman. Louisiana does not recognize a blanket "repairman" exception to strict liability under La.C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322. However, given that the determination of whether a risk is "unreasonable" is context specific, the fact that the injured party was a repairman hired to fix the defect is a relevant factor in assessing whether the defect posed an unreasonable risk of harm. Because the risk of harm presented by the handrail and faced by repairman Celestine was not unreasonable, we affirm the court of appeal's reversal of the trial court judgment.
Leroy Celestine, a 32 year old welder, was employed by Gulf Coast Marine Fabricators, Inc. Union contracted with Gulf Coast to provide maintenance and repair services on West Cameron 593A, an offshore stationary platform. A contract between Union and Gulf Coast describes the services to be performed by the Contractor Gulf Coast in general terms: "Furnish equipment and personnel to perform services normally provided by CONTRACTOR when requested by UNION on UNION's oil and gas properties located in
Prior to Gulf Coast's undertaking this project, Lewis Brown, a Union employee, walked the platform with Gulf Coast employee Gary Dale Beaubouef, pointing out just which handrails should be replaced. According to Beaubouef, Brown explained that the handrails were being changed because they were in disrepair. Beaubouef estimated approximately eighty (80%) percent of the handrails on the platform's second level were to be changed. He also confirmed that the handrail on which Celestine was later working, at the time of the accident, was one of the handrails selected for maintenance.
Celestine was in the process of removing a handrail on the second level of the platform when the accident occurred. This handrail was constructed of three horizontal pipes connected by vertical pipes inserted into sockets which were welded to plates on an I-beam on the platform. Realizing that the removal of the handrail was a dangerous task, Celestine wore a safety belt and life jacket and placed another life jacket on the rail to serve as a cushion. He leaned across the bottom pipe and over the water to examine where to cut with his torch. Jeffery Bibaeff, a Gulf Coast employee, was on the opposite end of the handrail, which was made up of three horizontal pipes. Bibaeff was supporting the handrail where he stood. No one was supporting the handrail directly above where Celestine was working. Celestine admitted after his accident that there should have been more than one workman assisting him and that on prior occasions, there were always two people supporting the rail, one at each end, while he cut the vertical rail away from the socket. He was not concerned at the time about the lack of additional assistance because the rail appeared to be in good shape.
Celestine testified he understood that one of the reasons the sockets were being removed was because of accumulation of moisture and resulting rust damage. However, on this particular rail, while the socket seemed to be rusty, the plate that was welded to the I-beam was not. Celestine proceeded to burn the paint off of the socket. Then he set his torch to cutting the socket away from the I-beam. After cutting for approximately a minute, the handrail dropped. A weld broke on the far end of the rail, causing the socket into which the vertical rail was inserted to partially disconnect from the I-beam at that point. At the same time, the socket on which Celestine was working disconnected and the rail fell onto Celestine's back. The workman assisting Celestine by holding the rail on the opposite end was unable to stop its fall.
This was not the first time a handrail fell while Celestine was at work. Previously, a handrail broke loose but was caught by the two workmen assisting Celestine on that occasion. In the prior incident, Celestine was cutting one end of the rail when the other end of the rail broke where the rail was inserted into the socket. The socket did not break away from the I-beam as it did in the current incident.
Celestine was transported for medical treatment for his back. Two herniated discs were diagnosed and he underwent surgery. When his pain continued, he underwent a second surgery to fuse the spine at the area of the herniations. The second operation did not provide sufficient relief but Celestine declined further surgery. He currently has a 10-15% whole body impairment and his treating physician testified that Celestine would not be able to return to work as a welder but would be restricted to light activity jobs.
Celestine and his wife Beverly, individually and on behalf of their two minor children,
Both Celestine and Union filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Celestine argued that the jury's finding of comparative negligence was legally erroneous and that the damage award should be increased. The trial judge rejected Celestine's argument that comparative negligence was inapplicable in a strict liability case and concluded that the jury was free to compare Union's non-negligent strict liability and Celestine's negligent conduct to determine the extent to which each contributed to his injuries. However, the trial court did increase the awards for general damages and lost wages. In its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, Union contended that it should not be held strictly liable where Celestine was performing repair work because it was not unreasonable to subject a repairman to the risks inherent in making repairs. Union's motion was denied by the trial court which cited the general rule that recovery under strict liability is not allowed where the risk of harm is clear and obvious, or where the repairman is aware of the danger. Whether the danger was obvious, whether Celestine was aware of the danger, and whether the manner of repairing the handrail was unsafe were all questions of fact for the jury to determine, and the trial court found no error in the conclusions of the jury.
Both parties appealed. The Third Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the finding that Union was strictly liable and affirmed that Union and its employees were not negligent. Judgment for the intervenors was also reversed, and Celestine's assigned errors of inadequate damages and assessment of comparative fault were pretermitted.
The Court of Appeal cited the United States Fifth Circuit case of Ladue v. Chevron, USA, Inc., 920 F.2d 272 (5th Cir.1991) as the applicable law in Louisiana on this issue. The facts of Ladue are very similar to the facts herein. Plaintiff, a roustabout hired to repair grating on an offshore platform, was injured when a portion of the grating broke loose. He avoided falling into the water by grabbing hold of the deck but injured himself in the process. The Ladue plaintiff sued the platform owner, alleging strict liability under La.C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant and the Court of Appeals affirmed in an opinion authored by Judge Alvin B. Rubin. Judge Rubin, for the panel, reviewed Louisiana law interpreting La.C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322 as well as an owner's obligations under these articles. Judge Rubin noted that one way to discharge the owner's obligation under La.C.C. art. 2322 is to repair a potentially dangerous condition. By allocating the burden of loss to the owner, the Civil Code provides owners an economic incentive to effect such repairs, and this incentive would be destroyed if owners are held strictly liable when repairmen are injured by the very condition they are hired to repair. Judge Rubin also reviewed the "unreasonable risk" analysis of Entrevia v. Hood, 427 So.2d 1146 (La.1983), discussed further below, and concluded that the owner was not strictly liable under these circumstances.
The court of appeal in this case concluded that the Ladue opinion was correct and held
Celestine applied to this Court for a writ of review, assigning as error the Court of Appeal's holding of the inapplicability of strict liability and its reversal of the jury's finding that the platform posed an unreasonable risk of injury to Celestine. We granted the writ application to address this question of first impression: Does Louisiana law recognize a "repairman" exception to an owner's strict liability for injury caused by a vice, defect or ruin on the premises?
An owner's liability for a vice or defect on the premises is rooted in La.C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322.
To recover under La.C.C. 2317, a plaintiff must prove that he was injured by a thing which was in the care or custody of the defendant and that such thing was defective. Fonseca, supra; Loescher, supra. To recover under La. 2322 against an owner of a building, a plaintiff must prove that the building posed an unreasonable risk of injury to others and that he was damaged by virtue of this risk. Entrevia v. Hood, 427 So.2d 1146 (La.1983). Celestine would like the inquiry to end at this point with the conclusion that as Union was the custodian of the platform and as Celestine was injured by an alleged defect or risk of injury on the platform, then Union is strictly liable. However, this interpretation of the law ignores the definition of "defect" and an "unreasonable" risk and the limitations placed on an owner's liability.
A building owner is not responsible for all injuries resulting from any risk posed by his building; he is only liable for those injuries caused by an
We addressed the methodology for determination of whether a risk was unreasonable in Entrevia v. Hood, supra, where a trespasser sued the owner of an unoccupied farmhouse for damages sustained allegedly caused by a defect in the rear steps, alleging strict liability. We concluded that under the circumstances, "in light of all relevant moral,
We now follow these guideposts in a determination of whether the risk of injury faced by Celestine was unreasonable. In Ladue, 920 F.2d at 277, Judge Rubin instructed that determination of whether a risk is unreasonable is personal to the particular plaintiff:
Thus, the determination of whether a particular risk of harm is reasonable is a matter wed to the facts of the case. Perhaps except only in ultrahazardous cases, it is impossible and improper to characterize a risk as unreasonable without consideration of the surrounding circumstances. Thus, any per se rule that an owner may never be held strictly liable to a repairman injured while repairing the alleged defect is unworkable and contrary to the fact intensive nature of the definition of "unreasonable risk." Rather, the individual circumstances, including but not limited to the social, moral, economic considerations, the degree of knowledge of the repairman, the incentive or disincentive to the owner to repair the vice or defect, the reasonableness of presuming that a particular repairman is cognizant of the particular risks, and the ability of the repairmen to minimize such risks, should all be factored into and weighed in the "unreasonable risk" calculation. For example, the extent to which an owner's incentive to repair the premises may be destroyed if held strictly liable to a repairman must be balanced against the repairman's rights under La.C.C. art. 2322 to hold an owner answerable in damages for defects or vices on the premises. To the extent that the Third Circuit may have adopted a per se rule of a "repairman" exception to an owner's strict liability, such a ruling is not correct.
Celestine argued that the court of appeal decision here conflicted with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal decision in Mason v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 423 So.2d 736 (La.App. 4th Cir.1982). The trial court had held that the only possible cause of action for plaintiff, an employee of a renovation contractor seeking recovery for injuries sustained in a fall while working on a residential roof, was in negligence, and that strict liability was not a viable theory of recovery. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the employee could in fact assert strict liability theories against the owner. Mason is not contrary to our holding here. The Fourth Circuit in Mason recognized, as we do today, that there is no per se exception of repairmen from the ambit of an owner's strict liability. Such exception only applies if a
We turn now to consideration of whether the risk of injury or harm resulting in damages was unreasonable vis-a-vis Celestine. The facts of this case do not support the conclusion that the defective handrail which caused the injury presented an unreasonable risk for Celestine. Plaintiff Celestine was the repairman hired to fix the defective handrails on the platform. As a repairman, presumably he possessed certain knowledge and skill. The handrail that injured Celestine had been specifically selected for maintenance work. This was not the first handrail Celestine had repaired on this assignment. Celestine was the only welder on the job and he possessed the skills and knowledge of a specialized repairman. Celestine knew the defect was present as evidenced by his earlier experience when another rail fell, although without injury to him on that occasion. At that time, Celestine was assisted by two workmen and he knew that with adequate assistance, the risks of repair would be minimal. As the court of appeal concluded, his injury was the result of the manner in which he chose to repair the handrail rather than his exposure to an
We therefore conclude that an owner is strictly liable to a repairman for injury caused by a vice, defect or ruin on his premises only where the building or defect therein poses an unreasonable risk of harm vis-a-vis the repairman. Given that the determination of whether a risk is "unreasonable" is context specific, the fact that an injured party was a repairman hired to fix the defect is a relevant factor in assessing whether the defect posed an unreasonable risk of harm. Applying the unreasonable risk of harm analysis of Entrevia to the facts and circumstances before us, the risk of harm presented by the handrail was not unreasonable and Union, as owner of the platform, is not strictly liable to repairman Celestine.
In light of this conclusion, we must consider the adequacy of the trial court's instructions to the jury on the issue of determination of the "reasonableness" of a risk. The Court of Appeal below found reversible error in the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on the principles involved in strict liability concerning a repairman. Union had requested the trial court to instruct the jury that no duty is owed and no strict liability claim arises when a repairman is injured by the very condition he was hired to repair. The Court of Appeal concluded that the jury instructions were incomplete and the jury should have been instructed on the jurisprudential interpretation of when an owner is not liable in strict liability to a repairman.
We do not adopt a "repairman" exception to strict liability under La.C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322. However, we do conclude that plaintiff's status as a repairman is a significant factor in determination of whether a risk is unreasonable. The trial court instructed the jury that in deciding the reasonableness of the plaintiff's conduct, all of the circumstances of the case should be considered. However, the trial court did not instruct the jury that plaintiff's status as a repairman was a significant factor, one coincidentally supporting the absence of unreasonable risk, to be considered by the jury. In light of Entrevia v. Hood, supra, prior Louisiana jurisprudence
We conclude that the jury was inadequately instructed on the legal principles applicable to a claim of strict liability where the plaintiff is a repairman. Upon consideration of the applicable law and relevant facts herein, including plaintiff's status as a repairman and an owner's duties and obligations under the Civil Code, we also conclude that the risk of harm presented by the handrail was not unreasonable, and we affirm the Court of Appeal's reversal of the trial court judgment.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, we affirm the decision of the court of appeal. All other issues are pretermitted.
VICTORY, J., dissents.