Second Circuit Confirms that Employee Was At Fault in Personal Injury Lawsuit

Last August, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal upheld a ruling against plaintiff Dennis Quillian in a tort claim ensuing from a work-related injury in Pineville. At the time of the accident, Mr. Quillian was working as a truck driver for Swift Transportation Company, Inc., carrying paper manufactured by Georgia Pacific. Mr. Quillian’s job was to move the shipment of paper from Dixie in West Monroe to Plastipak, located in Pineville. Mr. Quillian was hurt when he went to unload the paper at Plastipak and was struck in the side by a bundle of paper. Mr. Quillian subsequently filed a lawsuit against Dixie.

In a personal injury lawsuit against an employer the main question is, who is responsible? If the employer failed to take a precaution or committed an act that was in breach of his “duty of care”, then the employer should be held accountable for damages caused to the employee. If the injury was the result of the employee’s own wrongdoing, and not the result of an unsafe work environment, then the employer will not have to compensate the employee for his injury. If the fault of the accident can be attributed in part to the employer and in part to the employee, then the employer can be held responsible for the employee’s injuries, but only up to the amount corresponding to his percentage of fault. So if an employer is found 60% responsible for a work accident, then he will have to pay for 60% of the employee’s damages.

In Mr. Quillian’s case, the issues that were in contention were whether any pertinent safety measures had been contravened and whether Mr. Quillian had assumed any risks associated with transporting the shipment. A contract regulation to ensure secure transportation stated that Dixie was to use Georgia Pacific air bags to secure the cargo being moved. Another safety measure was the use of load locks to secure the bundles of cargo, to ensure that the cargo would not fall out when the truck doors were opened; Georgia Pacific requires the use of two load locks. According to expert testimony, the air bags were meant to ensure the safety of the cargo, whereas the load locks are used to protect the driver from falling cargo. when opening the truck. Mr. Quillian agreed in his testimony that load locks are the main safety mechanism used to prevent cargo from falling out when the truck doors are opened.

On the day of the accident, Dixie could not supply air bags due to a broken air compressor. Dixie foreman Bobby Foster testified that Mr. Quillian had been advised of the lack of air bags, of which Mr. Quillian denied having knowledge. Mr. Foster further testified that he told Mr. Quillian that he could pick up some air bags at the Georgia Pacific office nearby, but Mr. Quillian responded that it would not be necessary since the drive was short. Mr. Foster stated that Mr. Quillian failed to install a second load lock on the top level, and that he could have done so during loading. The Court of Appeal found that the trial court had reasonably concluded that Mr. Quillian failed to inspect the load before driving away, and that the court had not abused its power in crediting Mr. Foster’s testimony regarding the air bags and the load locks.

With respect to whether Mr. Quillian had assumed any risks, Mr. Quillian gave conflicting testimony regarding whether or not he properly opened the truck doors. The Court of Appeals found that there was no clear error in accepting the expert testimony and finding that the evidence “profoundly demonstrated” that Mr. Quillian failed to properly open the truck doors, which would have prevented the box from hitting him in the manner that Mr. Quillian described.

Mr. Quillian did not have an expert witness to testify on his behalf at trial. He had tried to call a truck safety expert but the trial judge refused, on the grounds that expert witnesses must be identified within 90 days of trial according to Louisiana law; Mr. Quillian had only given 60 days notice.

As a last point, there was evidence that Mr. Quillian suffered from degenerative disk disease and had prior back issues. Additionally, there was no outward sign of injury from the work accident and Mr. Quillian did not seek medical attention until the next day.

As Mr. Quillian’s case illustrates, many factors and details come into play in a personal injury lawsuit, from procedural issues such as promptly turning over witness lists to questions of fact concerning a plaintiff’s own negligent behavior.

If you have questions or concerns about a potential workplace liability or claim, contact the Bernaird Law Firm for a free consultation at 504-527-6225.