Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Motor Carrier Held Blameless in Mishap That Injured Driver
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A company that hires drivers to deliver complex loads, including propane tanks, is not responsible for the injuries one of the drivers suffered when a tank fell on him during the unloading process, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Two Friday upheld the verdict of a San Bernardino Superior Court judge who ruled, following a bench trial, that AmeriGas Propane, L.P. failed to show negligence on the part of Landstar Ranger, Inc., and that even if Landstar was negligent, such negligence was not the legal cause of Steven K. King’s injuries.
King, an independent and experienced truck driver, was hired by Landstar as an independent contractor to deliver the tanks to AmeriGas in Fontana. He picked up the empty tanks, each of which has a capacity of 280 gallons and weighs 700 pounds or more, in Northern California.
King delivered the load, on schedule, on April 14, 2005. He later testified that the tanks would normally have been removed using a boom truck, but that the boom was not at the yard when he arrived, so an AmeriGas employee decided to use a forklift.
King had no experience using a forklift to unload propane tanks, and the AmeriGas worker, David Jones, acknowledged he didn’t either, King testified. King added that unloading the tanks was not part of his responsibility, and that he wanted it done quickly so he could leave.
Jones, he said, insisted that all of the straps keeping the tanks in place be removed at once in order to “unload layers.” King said he complied because Jones was in charge and the alternative would have been for King to unload the tanks himself.
He said he remembered that after the straps were removed, he saw the lift machine lift up the rear end of his flatbed trailer several inches, shaking the trailer, and the operator adjusting the machine, reapproaching the trailer, and making contact with it again. He said he did not remember anything after that.
AmeriGas’ operations manager at the Northern California facility, in Camino—near Placerville—said the tanks had been properly loaded there and there was no reason to foresee any problems at the other end. The company’s regional safety manager faulted Jones for unloading the tanks, when he lacked the experience needed to do so, and that removing all of the straps at once was improper.
Jones acknowledged suggesting the tanks be removed with a forklift, a device Jones used every day. He denied telling King to take all of the straps off or threatening not to assist if the straps were not removed all at once.
He explained that when he and another employee hooked up the middle tank and tried to raise it, the chain gave way and the tank fell down. He said it was possible the truck tires and the forklift tires bumped.
King, he said, was knocked unconscious by the falling tank.
King and his wife sued AmeriGas, which settled the claim for $3.375 million, but went to trial on its cross-complaint against Landstar. AmeriGas claimed Landstar should be liable for contribution or indemnity because it was negligent in failing to follow federal motor safety regulations governing cargo safety.
Judge John Pacheco, following three days of testimony, said none of the cited regulations “apply to the facts of the case.” He added that even if Landstar was negligent, such negligence was no more than one percent of that attributed to AmeriGas.
Justice Carol Codrington, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed that Landstar was without liability.
The justice emphasized that the claims against Landstar were not based on any allegation that King violated safety regulations or was otherwise negligent, but that Landstar itself had violated regulations by failing to make certain that King was properly trained.
But the regulations AmeriGas cited, the justice said, “do not address unloading cargo,” but dealt with how to safely load cargo. Codrington rejected the argument that rules governing safe loading also apply to unloading, based on the foreseeability that improperly secured load will shift.
“We agree [with the trial judge] AmeriGas has not cited any [regulations] that expressly address unloading a truck at its final destination…..There appears to be none, most likely because the primary purpose of the [federal motor carrier safety regulations] is to prevent accidents and injury to the public on the highway.”
The case is Amerigas Inc. v. Landstar Ranger, Inc., 14 S.O.S. 4779.
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