11th Circuit Revives Disabled Truck Driver’s Lawsuit Over Forklift Operator’s Alleged Negligence

You probably know that if you are injured on the job, workers’ compensation covers your employer’s liability for the accident. Workers’ compensation does not apply to third-party liability, however. In other words, if your work-related accident was caused by someone other than your employer (or someone working for your employer), you can still file a separate personal injury lawsuit against that party.

Newcomb v. Spring Creek Cooler, Inc.

Of course, unlike “no-fault” workers’ compensation benefits, you still have to prove that the third party did something wrong. The third party may turn around and argue you were either at-fault for the accident, or you should have been aware of the dangerous condition that caused your injuries.

Consider this recent decision, Newcomb v. Spring Creek Cooler Inc., from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals here in Atlanta. The plaintiff in this case was a tractor-trailer driver. One day he was assigned to pick up a shipment of corn from the defendant’s facility. At the same time, one of the defendant’s employees was transporting pallets of corn using a forklift.

The forklift operator completed four transfers without incident. On the fifth transfer, however, the operator failed to stop the forklift as it was heading toward the plaintiff, who was standing on the loading dock next to his trailer. The plaintiff quickly tried to evade the forklift, but he was unsuccessful. One of the crates on the forklift managed to strike the plaintiff, throwing him from the loading dock. The impact fractured the plaintiff’s skull. As a result, the plaintiff is now disabled and cannot work.

In his subsequent personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged the defendant’s employee “negligently struck him with the forklift.” The lawsuit offered two theories of liability. First, the defendant was liable for the negligent act of its employee (which is known as “respondeat superior” liability). Second, the defendant was negligent in its hiring, training, and supervision of the forklift operator.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant and dismissed both of the plaintiff’s claims. With respect to negligent hiring and supervision, the judge explained that under Georgia law, such a claim is “duplicative of a respondeat superior negligence claim” in most cases. But as for respondeat superior negligence, the judge also found the defendant was not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, as he chose to remain on the loading dock despite knowing the forklift was moving pallets around. In other words, the plaintiff had “has much, if not more, knowledge” than the defendant with respect to the safety hazard posed by the forklift.

The 11th Circuit disagreed and reversed the grant of summary judgment. It held that contrary to the trial court’s reasoning, this was not a case involving premises liability–i.e., one where the defendant failed to correct a preexisting hazardous condition–but rather one alleging the defendant’s employee “committed active negligence” in operating the forklift.

In fact, the 11th Circuit cited a Georgia Court of Appeals decision involving a similar set of circumstances. In that case, the state court expressly held “a negligence claim arising out of a forklift injury was not a premises liability claim.” Since federal courts are bound to follow the substantive principles of state law in these kind of personal injury cases, the 11th Circuit said the same rule applied to this lawsuit.