Willful Misconduct Defined by the Louisiana Supreme Court

During a 2016 declared state of emergency due to flooding, a Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Master Sergeant was supervising inmates engaged in sandbagging activities. While transporting sandbags and several inmates in a loaded state-owned pick-up truck, the DPSC employee hit a water-filled hole in the roadway, causing injury to the inmates.

The inmates sued the DPSC and its employee for damages. These defendants moved for summary judgment because La. R.S. 29:735(A)(1) provides immunity to the State, its agencies, and political subdivisions for injury or death resulting from emergency preparedness activities. Representatives and employees of the State, its agencies, or political subdivisions are also immune unless they engage in “willful misconduct.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court held “as a matter of law” that the DPSC employee’s actions in overloading the truck with sandbags, struggling to maintain control of the truck, looking at his phone while driving, and wearing sunglasses did not rise to the level of willful misconduct.  The Supreme Court defined “willful misconduct” as follows:

The terms willful, wanton, and reckless have been applied to that degree of fault which lies between intent to do wrong, and the mere reasonable risk of harm involved in ordinary negligence. These terms apply to conduct which is still merely negligent, rather than actually intended to do harm, but which is so far from a proper state of mind that it is treated in many respects as if harm was intended. Only the most egregious conduct by agents, employees, or representatives of public agencies that exhibits an active desire to cause harm, or a callous indifference to the risk of potential harm from flagrantly bad conduct, will rise to the level of willful misconduct.

McQuirter v. La. DPSC, 2020-01192 (La. 1/12/21) (per curiam).