The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently analyzed a case involving whether a dock plate used for moving a shipment into a warehouse presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The court examined the factors that determine whether a defective item presents a risk of harm such that the owner can be held responsible for the injuries.
Plaintiff Ethan Rose worked for Saia Motor Freight and was delivering items for Saia to Doerle Food Services, L.L.C. To transfer the shipment from the truck to the warehouse, a bridge must be created and extended from the warehouse floor. While attempting to pull a pallet jack, loaded with freight, over a hump on the unlevel docking plate, Mr. Rose slipped and fell to the ground. He suffered neck and back injuries, requiring medical treatment.
Mr. Rose and his wife filed a petition for damages against Dorele and their insurer, Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company (Defendants). Defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that it could not be proved that the dock plate presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The trial court granted Defendants’ motion.
On appeal, the court stated that Defendants asserted there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the unlevel plate presented an unreasonable risk of harm. They contended that while the docking plate did not lie flat, the risk that was created was “open and obvious to all.” They also alleged that the way that Mr. Rose unloaded the truck had no social utility and was inherently dangerous.
The applicable Louisiana law states that the owner of a thing must answer for harm caused by its ruin or defect if the owner was in custody or control of the thing that contained a defect presenting an unreasonable risk of harm, and if the owner should have known of the defect. The issue of whether a defect constitutes an unreasonable risk of harm is a question of whether the defendant breached a duty. An unreasonable risk of harm requires examining four factors, including (1) the utility of the complained-of condition; (2) the likelihood of harm, including how obvious and apparent the condition is; (3) the cost of preventing the harm; and (4) the nature of plaintiff’s activities in term of their social utility.
The court stated that a plaintiff’s comparative fault should not be incorporated into the analysis of whether a defect presents an unreasonable risk of harm. In other words, a plaintiff’s awareness of the risk should not be a factor in determining whether the defect presented an unreasonable risk of harm.
While Defendants asserted that the defect was open and obvious and that no evidence existed that anyone had fallen because of a coned dock plate, the court stated that the absence of prior injuries does not preclude finding that a defect presented an unreasonable risk of harm. Plaintiffs had submitted the report of a mechanical engineer, who indicated that the large steel plates used to form the bridge made the slope less noticeable and more gradual.
Next, the court stated that while Defendants focused on the way that Mr. Rose unloaded the freight, the pertinent inquiry is whether the activity is inherently dangerous. The court stated that unloading freight is not dangerous by nature, and in fact it has social utility because modern society could not function without it.
Furthermore, the court stated that evidence indicated that applying weight on the ramp was necessary to deploy it. If the bulge remained, it was therefore not unreasonable for Mr. Rose to believe applying his weight would level the ramp. It was not unreasonable for Mr. Rose to decide he would be able to maneuver the pallet jack off the bulge.
In conclusion, the court stated that the particular way that Mr. Rose unloaded the freight might require an allocation of comparative fault later, but not when considering a motion for summary judgment on an inquiry into the unreasonableness of the condition.
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