COA finds warehouse not liable for cargo-related deaths

An Indianapolis-based warehouse facility has been cleared of liability in a tractor-trailer accident that killed three and injured one after the Indiana Court of Appeals found the warehouse had neither a contractual nor a common law duty to the victims.

In January 2010, Kendall Transportation dispatched one of its drivers, Israel Rankin, to haul a 40,000-pound steel coil from ADS Logistics Co., LLC, a warehouse facility, to Eagle Steel Products, Inc. While traveling with the coil, Rankin was once forced to brake harder than normal when a car pulled out in front of him.

Rankin did not stop to check the load after that incident despite the fact that he thought the load “felt funny.” Then a few miles later, the coil then became unsecured, left Rankin’s trailer and struck two vehicles, killing Zachary Staggs, Shannon Steele and Michael Daugherty and injuring Mackenzie Taylor.

Taylor and representatives from the three victims’ estates filed various lawsuits stemming from the accident, including one against ADS, which moved for summary judgment. The Porter Superior Court granted that motion after finding as a matter of law that ADS did now owe a duty to the plaintiffs “regarding securing the load to the tractor trailer that was involved in the accident.”

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued ADS had a duty toward them via its contract with ArcelorMittal USA, LLC, which paid ADS to warehouse the coil. The victims pointed to sections of that contract that required ADS to adhere to certain safety protocols, but those requirements were limited only to the warehousing of the coil, not the transportation, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

“No contractual language requires or implies that ADS assumed a duty to secure the warehoused coil onto another driver’s trailer,” Judge John Baker wrote for the unanimous appellate panel. “Therefore, we simply cannot conclude that this contract created a duty owed by ADS to the Appellants with respect to the way in which the steel coil was secured to Rankin’s flatbed trailer.”

The victims also claimed ADS owed a common law duty to them, but the appellate court noted that duty cannot exist because there was no relationship between ADS and the appellants. The court also found the harm was unforeseeable as a matter of law and that public policy did not support a finding of a common law duty.

“It is apparent that the party best suited to prevent an injury to motorists with respect to commercial cargo secured to a flatbed trailer is the entity responsible for securing, hauling, and checking on the cargo during the drive,” Baker wrote. “Here, that is Rankin and his employer, Kendall Transportation. ADS had such a limited role in these proceedings that it would have had little to no ability to prevent the tragic accident that occurred.”

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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