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In a strict liability case, the claimant is relieved only of proving that the owner knew or should have known of the risk involved. The claimant must still prove that under the circumstances the thing presented an unreasonable risk of harm which resulted in the damage (or must prove, as some decisions have characterized this element of proof, that the thing was defective). The resulting liability is strict in the sense that the owner's duty to protect against injurious consequences resulting from the risk does not depend on actual or constructive knowledge of the risk, the factor which usually gives rise to a duty under negligence concepts. Under strict liability concepts, the mere fact of the owner's relationship with and responsibility for the damage-causing thing gives rise to an absolute duty to discover the risks presented by the thing in custody. If the owner breaches that absolute duty to discover, he is presumed to have discovered any risks presented by the thing in custody, and the owner accordingly will be held liable for failing to take steps to prevent injury resulting because the thing in his custody presented an unreasonable risk of injury to another.
The accident occurred when Keith Kent (Keith), an employee of Barber Brothers Contracting Company, was working on a highway department project to widen a roadway in the Baton Rouge area. The 30-foot aluminum pole he was using to texture the surface of the highway came in contact with a high voltage distribution line owned by Gulf States Utilities. Milton Kent, Jr. (Kent), Keith’s father, sued the defendants. Named as original defendants were Gulf States Utilities Company and the State of Louisiana Department of Highways. After the trial court determined Kent’s exclusive remedy against the Department was for workmen's compensation benefits and dismissed that defendant, plaintiff named the Department's project engineer, W. L. Landon, Jr., and their project inspector, Killiam H. Kupper, as individual defendants. Also named defendants in their individual capacities were Barber's two executive officers. After presentation of the evidence and closing arguments to the jury, the Barber defendants reached a settlement with Kent. The trial court's charge to the jury included instructions on the liability of the Barber defendants, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Kent against Gulf States Utilities and Barber's two officers for $3,000,000. The trial court entered judgment following the verdict against Gulf States Utilities for $1,000,000, plus legal interest and one-third of the costs, as its share of the judgment. All other defendants were dismissed. Kent appealed, seeking reversal of the dismissal of Landon and Kupper and of the trial court's reduction of the judgment by two-thirds. Defendant Gulf States also appealed, reurging the defenses of contributory negligence and/or assumption of risk. The court of appeal held that Kent's conduct barred his recovery and reversed the judgment against Gulf States, while affirming the dismissal of all other defendants.
Was Gulf States liable under La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2317?
The court affirmed and held that Gulf States was not strictly liable under La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2317 or as an enterpriser engaged in an ultrahazardous activity. La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2317, which imposed an absolute duty on owners to discover the risks of things that were in their custody, was not helpful in analyzing Gulf States’ liability because Gulf States was aware of the condition of its lines. Moreover, the transmission of electricity over high tension power lines was an everyday occurrence that could be done without a high risk of injury. Gulf States was thus not absolutely liable as an enterpriser engaged in ultrahazardous activities, where its activity of transmitting electricity was a cause in fact of injury to another, unless fault was proved on Gulf States’ part. Gulf States took reasonable steps under the circumstances to protect against the risk that a person would come in contact with its lines in the construction area.