In a personal injury case, you cannot recover damages against a defendant based on negligence if you voluntarily assumed the underlying risk. To put it another way, if your own negligence caused the accident, you cannot blame someone else. In some cases, the plaintiff’s responsibility is considered so obvious, a judge will not even let a negligence claim proceed to trial.
Fuller v. McCormick
Here is one such case. The plaintiff worked as a farmhand. During the 13 years of his employment, the plaintiff regularly operated a Bobcat utility vehicle to perform various tasks around the farm.
One day, the farm’s owners asked the plaintiff to move some large rocks and other material from a demolition site into a dump truck. The plaintiff decided to park the Bobcat below the dump truck and “fully extend the arm of the Bobcat 10 to 12 feet off the ground” in order to load the truck. At one point the plaintiff “overloaded the bucket with rocks,” according to court records. The bucket struck the side of the dump truck, causing the rocks to fall out. One of the rocks hit the plaintiff’s leg with such severity that he eventually required knee replacement surgery.
The plaintiff sued the defendants for negligence, alleging that their failure to properly supervise and train him, among other things, led to the accident. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk of injury when he overloaded the bucket and fully extending the arm of the Bobcat. The judge denied the motion, holding this was a disputed question of fact that should be left to a jury.
But the Georgia Court of Appeals, in an 8-1 decision, said the defendants were in fact entitled to summary judgment. The Court said the plaintiff “admitted that he was concerned for his safety when he extended the arm of the Bobcat bucket above the high wall of the dump truck,” and that he “knew better than to load large mounds of dirt and rock that could stick up over the top of the bucket.” These admissions were sufficient, the majority said, to warrant summary judgment for the defendants.
One judge disagreed. He said that contrary to the majority’s conclusions, the plaintiff testified that “he did not overload the bucket.” (The majority opinion rejected this testimony as “self-serving” and “feigned ignorance of the open and obvious danger.”) While the plaintiff knew there was a risk the Bobcat might tip over, he did not anticipate what actually happened–the rocks falling out of the bucket and striking his knee. Given that, the dissent argued, it was not such an obvious conclusion that the plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk of injury. Furthermore, the plaintiff presented a viable theory of the defendants’ negligence–namely, that had he been properly trained, he would not have used the Bobcat in an unsafe manner.