California Court Holds University Had No Duty to Protect Delivery Driver Against Injuries Resulting from Inaccurately Labeled Package

In a recent case before the California Court of Appeal, the court addressed the doctrine of primary assumption of risk as it applies to an employee injured in their line of work.  The court discussed  the fireman’s rule and the veterinarian rule to explain that there is no duty of care owed to those who are harmed by the very hazard posed by their occupation. Relying on the facts of this particular situation and policy considerations, the court barred the injured employee’s recovery.

The plaintiff, Stephen Moore, worked as a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver, and he was injured when he lifted a box with an inaccurate weight label.  Mr. Moore had worked for UPS for over 15 years, and he had lifted heavy boxes as part of his position as a UPS delivery driver. UPS instructed their employees on proper lifting techniques and trained them to test the weight of packages before lifting them.

At the time of his injury, Mr. Moore had been moving a box prepared by defendant William Jessup University. Mr. Moore felt pain in his shoulder, wrist, and neck. He stated that the shipping label indicated the box weighed 48 pounds, but based on his experience it likely weighed 70 to 80 pounds. After recovering workers’ compensation benefits for his injuries, he sued the University for negligence.

The University moved for summary judgment on the ground that they owed Mr. Moore no duty to protect him from risks inherent to his employment, and they did not increase the risk inherent in Mr. Moore’s job. The trial court granted the summary judgment motion and entered judgment in favor of the University.  They found there was no duty of care owed by the University to Mr. Moore, and primary assumption of risk barred his negligence action.

On appeal, the court stated the standard of review for a summary judgment motion, making clear that a defendant moving for summary judgment may meet their burden of showing that the plaintiff’s allegations have no merit by showing one or more elements of the causes of action cannot be demonstrated.  Evidence in the form of discovery and admissions may be taken into consideration by the court.  The burden then shifts to the plaintiff to show the existence of a triable issue of material fact.  The court considers the evidence and makes inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, in this case the defendant.

Mr. Moore contended that the trial court incorrectly granted summary judgment, applying the primary assumption of risk doctrine.  He claimed his negligence action was not barred by primary assumption of risk because the University increased the risk of harm to him by their failures to indicate the true weight of the box and to use a tape highlighting the box.

The court stated the primary assumption of risk doctrine excuses a defendant from their usual duty of ordinary care. It bars recovery if it applies in a negligence action because the defendant does not owe the plaintiff a duty of care.  Whether a duty exists is a matter of law, based on the particular activity and the parties’ relationship to the activity. Furthermore, while defendants are not obligated to protect plaintiffs from inherent risks, they must not increase the risks of that activity.

The firefighter’s rule is a primary assumption of risk doctrine related to the employment context.  The general notion is that people who start fires owe no duty to the firefighters working to respond to fires.  Those injured by the very work they are contractually obligated to confront are barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Another offshoot of this rule is the veterinarian’s rule. An animal owner does not owe a duty of care to the veterinarian if their dog bites them during treatment. The reason is because this type of hazard is part of the occupation. Another aspect of this rule is that the veterinarian is the person in possession and control of the dog, best able to take any necessary precautions.

The court made clear that plaintiffs are not required to assume every potential risk posed by their occupation. For example, a defendant is not shielded for misconduct that stands apart from that which brought the plaintiff to the scene or the action. In this case, the court stated that the risk posed by lifting heavy boxes inaccurately labeled with weight information was inherent in Mr. Moore’s delivery driver job at UPS.  The University did not owe Mr. Moore a duty to protect him from that risk, nor did they increase the risk of harm to him.

The court stated the risk of being injured while moving or lifting heavy objects was inherent to Mr. Moore’s occupation. The University secured Mr. Moore’s services in order to ship boxes, as part of his regular job. There was no evidence showing that UPS customers place the weight information on a package so that drivers know how to safely handle packages. In fact, UPS employees are trained to test package weights before lifting them.

Not only was Mr. Moore experienced in lifting and handling UPS packages, but also he controlled how he would move boxes from the University. He could have called for assistance and was in fact in the best position to protect himself from injuries. The University did not supervise his work moving the packages. They did not have a duty to protect him from his resulting injuries.

In conclusion, policy considerations and the facts showing Mr. Moore’s job duties and the parties’ relationship did not demonstrate that the University had a duty to protect Mr. Moore against injury or that they increased the risk of harm.  The doctrine of assumption of risk as applied in this case helps to promote the use of commercial shipping services and ensure that delivery persons hold the burden of safely lifting and moving packages.

The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

At Sharifi Firm, our personal injury attorneys provide guidance and representation to individuals injured by another person’s negligence. We provide a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Holds Proprietors of Horse Ranch Do Not Have Duty to Reduce Inherent Risk of Horseback Riding, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, December 31, 2015

California Supreme Court Reverses Judgment for City Because Plaintiff Need Not Prove Dangerous Condition Caused Third-Party Conduct, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 20, 2015

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