Seriously injured truck driver’s suit against Celadon reinstated

A semi-truck driver who was seriously injured after the contents of his trailer fell on him upon opening the door after transport won partial judgment against the trucking company responsible for loading the trailer when an appellate panel found the company owed him a duty of care.

Paul Wilkes, an over-the-road truck driver for Knight Transport, was dispatched in January 2014 to pick up a trailer full of empty reusable containers that Cummins Inc. used to house engine parts.

The “returnables,” empty and lubricated with industrial solvents, were routinely shipped from Celadon’s Columbus facility to another facility in North Carolina. The trailer Wilkes was directed to pick up for transport had been loaded by an employee of Celadon Trucking Services, Inc.

Wilkes didn’t notice anything outstanding about the way the containers were stacked prior to transport. But upon arriving at his location and opening the trailer door, Wilkes was struck by cascading trays that spilled out from the top of one of the stacks. He sustained serious injuries, including a broken neck and brain trauma.

Wilkes sued Cummins and Celadon for negligence, arguing that the Celadon employee negligently loaded the trailer. Both companies were granted summary judgment when a trial court concluded neither owed a duty of care to Wilkes.

That decision was partially reversed in Paul Michael Wilkes v. Celadon Group, Inc., et al., 18A-CT-2011, when a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that Celadon did not demonstrate it owed no duty to Wilkes, and that it failed to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact as to the remaining elements of breach of duty or proximate cause.

Celadon asserted that Wilkes’ opposition of the award of summary judgment was inadequate for several reasons, including the fact that no evidence was designated that:

• Celadon or Cummins assumed responsibility to secure Wilkes’s cargo;

• the load had been defectively placed in the trailer;

• an experienced truck driver such as Wilkes would have failed to appreciate any alleged defect;

• anyone assured Wilkes that the load had been properly secured for him, or;

• that Wilkes did not have an opportunity to inspect the load.

Celadon also focused on Wilkes’ duty to care for his own safety, arguing that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations squarely imposed a nondelegable duty of inspection upon Wilkes under 49 C.F.R. § 392.9.

But the appellate panel instead accepted Wilkes’ version of the events, noting that the circumstances did not facilitate a realistic opportunity for his inspection of the trailer contemplated by the FMCSRs or common law principles.

“We will not employ either regulations or common law to extinguish all duty on the part of Celadon, who summoned Knight to act in assisting Celadon with its duties as a carrier for Cummins, and who exclusively loaded the freight,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote for the panel.

The appellate court further found that Celadon did not show that it was compliant with the industry’s standard of care to block and brace the cargo, and ultimately reversed the award of judgment in favor of Celadon.

However, the panel let stand judgment for Cummins, finding that because Cummins did not have a relationship with Wilkes or any control over the instrumentality that allegedly caused him harm, it did not owe him a duty of care. The COA therefore affirmed summary judgment for Cummins and remanded the case for proceedings in Marion Superior Court.

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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