Louisiana Bill Would Limit Liability of Mardi Gras Float-Builders

By Melinda Deslatte | April 20, 2010

A bill passed by the Louisiana House to limit the liability of float-builders would damage future attempts for float riders or watchers to sue when parade festivities hurt or kill someone, says a man whose brother died in a float accident.

Jonathan Compretta thinks Louisiana lawmakers want to make it too easy for companies who build the elaborate floats that carry bead-throwing riders to escape responsibility when things go wrong.

Compretta’s brother Jody was crushed two years ago, when a Krewe of Endymion float lurched forward, throwing him under just as he was trying to disembark and attend the end-of-parade party. Compretta’s family blamed the company that built the float and hired the driver. Jody’s wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

“You’re making a higher standard than other people have to live by when you’re driving a car,” Compretta said.

The bill by Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, would require proof of gross negligence or a deliberate act before the companies that build Mardi Gras floats could be held liable for damage, injuries or death during parades.

Arnold said the proposal is designed to stop frivolous lawsuits by people who get “hit with a pair of beads or something.”

“If a float falls apart, and the pieces of the float fall on somebody, obviously they’re still liable for that,” he said. “I’m trying to protect the float builders from just being sued because of something that happened that had nothing to do with what they do as a profession.”

Compretta, a lawyer and lobbyist in Jackson, Miss., said the change in legal standard would make it far tougher to hold people accountable for injuries and deaths on parade routes.

“You’re looking at a situation where if this happened after this bill is passed, my sister-in-law and my niece and my nephew are left high and dry without anybody to hold accountable for my brother’s death,” he said.

The bill passed 73-21 in the House and heads to the Senate for debate. Mardi Gras krewes already have the liability exemption, and Arnold’s bill would extend it to manufacturers or leasers of a trailer or float used in a parade, or of a vehicle used to tow those floats.

The liability limitation wouldn’t extend to any claim linked to the failure in design, manufacture or maintenance of a float.

Arnold acknowledges he sponsored the bill for Blaine Kern Studios, the business of well-known float builder and Mardi Gras enthusiast Blaine Kern that is located in Arnold’s district. The Kern family has been in the New Orleans float design and sculpting business for decades, making some of the most ornate and memorable floats for the city’s best-known parades.

Compretta’s family is suing Kern’s business, and Compretta said he believes Kern is trying to get the liability immunity passed by state lawmakers because of his family’s lawsuit. The case is pending.

Attempts to speak with someone at Blaine Kern Studios were unsuccessful. Phone calls by The Associated Press were not returned.

Compretta, whose father is the number two-ranking leader of the Mississippi House of Representatives, blames Endymion and Kern for his brother’s death, saying float riders should have been provided safety information about where and how they should exit the Mardi Gras float.

Arnold said if the tractor driver of the float was negligent, he and the company would still be liable for damages under the law, even if his bill passes.

Compretta said he’s e-mailed Louisiana lawmakers asking them to vote against Arnold’s bill. He said gross negligence requires a high burden of proof that’s hard to meet in a case – and he thinks it would discourage people with legitimate claims to file lawsuits.

“I understand if you say, ‘We don’t want people to get hit in the face with a pair of beads and become millionaires.’ I understand that,” he said. “But you have to know you’re throwing a whole lot more in there, and that’s just not right. I can’t let what happened to my brother happen to somebody else.”

House Bill 902 can be found at www.legis.state.la.us

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