Painter v. City of Humansville – City Employees Dropped From Death Case

Painter v. City of Humansville – City Employees Dropped From Death Case

Five years ago, a rambunctious 4-year-old boy was playing with a friend near his grandmother’s house in a vacant lot in Humansville, about 3.5 hours southwest of St. Louis. Several years earlier, a house on the lot had burned down, and owners of the property had cleared most of the debris. However, there remained a free-standing chimney.

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Two years earlier, the city notified the property owner the chimney was a public nuisance, and there was an order to remove it, or allow the city to do so. However, the property owner never complied and the city never took further action.

On the day the boys were playing on the lot, they had tied their dog to the bottom of the structure. Then, as one worked to unhook the dog’s leash, the chimney came toppling down without warning, killing one of the boys.

The boy’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and its employees, alleging negligence. However, because of the sovereign immunity doctrine, trial court ruled plaintiff’s case against the individual employees could not prevail. Plaintiff’s requested leave to file an amended second motion, one that asserted employees had acted willfully and in bad faith. Trial court still did not find this overcame the public duty and official immunity doctrines. Plaintiffs then requested leave to file a third amended petition, but that request was denied by the court.

Plaintiff’s appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, Division Two. However, trial court’s ruling was upheld.

This does not mean plaintiffs lose the case entirely, or that there aren’t other options for compensation. The case against the city directly will still move forward – just not against the individual employees. Plus, there may also be opportunity to pursue action against the owner of the land, though that was not mentioned in court documents.

The individual workers plaintiffs filed their complaint against included the mayor, an alerdperson and the chief of police. The allegation was the boy’s fatal injuries were caused by defendants’ negligent failure to enforce or comply with their duty under ordinance, which provide a procedure for abatement of the chimney nuisance. Property owner should have responded to the city’s 2008 notice of nuisance within two weeks. When he did not, the city had the legal authority to take action on its own.

In fact the ordinance states that if the property owner failed to take action, the mayor or designee “shall confirm the finding that a nuisance exists and proceed with the abatement of the nuisance in a reasonable manner.”

However, that did not happen, despite the language indicating such action “shall” be taken.

The city had a general liability policy of insurance that insured the city itself. While a liability insurance policy can act as a waiver of sovereign immunity to certain types of claims, that waiver did not extend, as plaintiffs asserted, to individual employees.

Plaintiffs attempted to overcome the immunity protections afforded to public employees by using the 2006 Missouri Supreme Court ruling in Kunzie v. City of Olivette. However, the only defendant in that case was a municipality. Further, in the more recent case of Southers v. City of Farmington, the court clearly stated waivers of immunity applicable to municipalities and political subdivisions don’t abrogate immunity protections enjoyed by public employees.

None of this is to say a government employee cannot be held personally liable for negligence on the job. However, because this is a complex area of civil law, it’s recommended plaintiffs trust their case only to aninjury lawyer with extensive experience.

Additional Resources:
Painter v. City of Humansville, et al., Feb. 20, 2015, Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, Division Two

More Blog Entries
Myers v. City of West Plains – Missouri Appellate Court Affirms Child Injury Verdict, Feb. 28, 2015, St. Louis Injury Lawyer Blog

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Ryan R. Cox & Associates, LLC

Ryan R. Cox & Associates, LLC is a litigation law firm that represents individuals and families in serious personal injury and wrongful death claims throughout Missouri. We help people who have been injured in all types of accidents—including car or truck accidents, motorcycle accidents, slip and fall accidents, and much more. Whether your injury is something that can cause long-term issues like a brain injury or spinal cord injury, or it is something you’ll likely make a full recovery from, we are here to help.

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