Injuries at work are avoidable, but not uncommon in occupations involving heavy lifting, heavy machinery heights and other clear areas of danger. When employees are injured at work, they may be able to file workplace injury lawsuits if they don’t have workers’ compensation or there’s a responsible third party. But in many states, including here in Missouri, employers can prevail in workplace injury lawsuits if they claim the danger was “open and obvious,” giving the employee responsibility for spotting and avoiding the danger. That was what happened in Aragon v. Wal-Mart Stores East, an Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal decision in a Missouri delivery driver’s injury claim. When cargo fell on Benny Aragon, it broke his leg and ankle and he sued both the sender and the recipient of the cargo. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.
Aragon was an experienced commercial motor vehicle driver working for J.B. Hunt Transports. Hunt sent Aragon to pick up a box trailer full of wrapped pallets containing reusable plastic containers at a Wal-Mart distribution center in Moberly, Missouri. He was then supposed to attach the trailer to his truck’s cab and drive it to an IFCO facility in Bolingbrook, Illinois. The box trailer had been loaded by someone else and Aragon said it was sealed on his arrival. He did not inspect or secure the load himself before attaching it to the truck cab, though he opened it after securing it and saw the pallets on the right side of the trailer. There were no straps or load locks, Aragon didn’t secure the load himself and he testified that no one instructed him to secure it. After arriving in Bolingbrook, Aragon opened the trailer doors and pallets fell on him. He later filed a negligence lawsuit against Wal-Mart and IFCO. After removing it to federal court, the defendants won summary judgment, arguing that the danger was open and obvious and that Aragon himself had a duty under federal law to secure and inspect the cargo.
The Eighth Circuit upheld that ruling, finding no breach of duty by Wal-Mart or IFCO. Aragon argued that there was a latent and concealed loading defect, noting that the load was shrink-wrapped, the security guard assured him the load was secured, the trailer was sealed when he added the trailer to his truck, and he was not experienced hauling cargo for this particular client. But none of these are adequate, the court said. The guard’s statement that “that’s okay” did not create an assurance the court said. Furthermore, Aragon acknowledged that he would normally use load locks with a shrink-wrapped load, but none was used here. And Aragon undisputedly had a chance to view and inspect the load before leaving the distribution center, the court noted. Furthermore, the court said, federal safety regulations give this duty to carriers, and neither of two exceptions applies: Aragon was not ordered not to break the seal for inspection, and the vehicle was not loaded in a way that made inspection impractical.
The Eighth Circuit did not decide here that the load was adequately secured. Rather, it said drivers like Aragon have the responsibility to take action to secure loads they don’t believe are adequately secured. That’s unfortunate, because such a rule could create practical problems with respect to how much authority a driver has to inspect and redo someone else’s work. It would also be nice if the courts agreed that we should be able to expect clients and colleagues to make safe choices. Because the Eighth Circuit did not make that choice, Aragon will not be able to recover damages beyond any he was able to get from workers’ compensation or action against his own employer. In addition, other injured workers pursuing workplace injury lawsuits in Missouri will have a harder battle to get fair compensation for dangers the court believes are open and obvious.