Law School Case Brief
Linnear v. CenterPoint Energy Entex/Reliant Energy - 2006-3030 ( La. 09/05/07), 966 So. 2d 36
An event must be such that in light of ordinary experience it gives rise to an inference that someone must have been negligent. Res ipsa loquitur, as a qualification of the general rule that negligence is not to be presumed, must be sparingly applied. The doctrine only applies when the circumstances surrounding an accident are so unusual as to give rise to an inference of negligence. It does not apply to cases involving ordinary accidents or injuries that often occur in the absence of negligence.
Plaintiffs Charles and Dronzy Linnear sued defendant CenterPoint Energy Entex/Reliant Energy for damages. It was alleged that CenterPoint was dispatched to investigate a gas leak at the Linnear residence. CenterPoint’s crew dug a trench four inches wide and eighteen inches deep running parallel to the Linnear's driveway, with approximately two to three feet between the trench and the driveway. They installed an 80 to 90-foot gas line from the meter located in the back of the house to the street in the front of the house. The Linnears used the area alongside the driveway as a path for walking to and from their vehicles and there is no dispute that the accident occurred in the general area where the trench was dug. The Linnears alleged that CenterPoint negligently filled the trench and failed to resod the area, resulting in the sinkhole that caused Mrs. Linnear to fall. Plaintiffs requested a jury instruction on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which the trial court rejected. The jury returned a verdict in favor of CenterPoint. Plaintiffs filed post-trial motions and for new trial but they were denied. On appeal, the court of appeal concluded that the trial judge's refusal to give a res ipsa loquitur instruction constituted legal error which "impeded" the fact-finding process of the jury. Accordingly, the appellate court found liability on the part of CenterPoint. CenterPoint filed a writ of application to determine the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur in the case.
Was the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur properly applied in the case?
The Court held that the court of appeal erred in applying the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur in this case. Although the court of appeal correctly recognized that res ipsa loquitur is only applicable where the plaintiff offers only circumstantial evidence from which negligence might be inferred, it went on to apply the doctrine in a case where direct evidence was not only available but was presented by both parties. This was error. The plaintiffs used the testimony of Mrs. Linnear, who gave her eyewitness account of how the accident happened. Both Linnears testified as to the condition of the yard after CenterPoint finished installing the new gas line in an attempt to show that CenterPoint installed the gas line and filled the trench in a negligent manner. Defendant CenterPoint presented the testimony of two workers who actually installed the gas line and filled the trench in an attempt to show that their performance was not negligent. Moreover, the Court resolved that res ipsa loquitur instruction was not warranted as the doctrine was not applicable in the case and that reasonable minds could not differ as to the nonexistence of all the three criteria of the application of res ipsa loquitur. The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury verdict and judgment in favor of CenterPoint.
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