Court Reverses Ruling in Favor of Contractor in an Overhead Work Case
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal recently reversed a judgment in favor of a contractor who was assisting with repairs to an overhead conveyor in a suit for personal injury in the case Alvin Jones v. Buck Kreihs Marine Repair, L.L.C. The ruling is interesting because the Court found that Buck Kreihs owed a duty to the plaintiff even though employees of Buck Kreihs did not drop the object that landed on plaintiff’s head.
Alvin Jones, an employee of United Bulk Terminal, L.L.C. (“UBT”), was critically injured, resulting in paralysis from the chest down while working at a UBT facility in Davant, Louisiana when a box fell on his head.
UBT was replacing weight scales on one of its overhead conveyor systems with the help of two employees from Buck Kreihs Marine Repair, L.L.C. (“BKM”). The BKM employees dispatched to the job met with the UBT supervisor in charge to discuss the work to be performed. Safety issues were not considered during this 20 minute meeting. The BKM employees followed the UBT supervisor to the boom work site approximately 35 feet above the facility floor where individuals were passing.
The BKM employees were tasked with removing the old scale and counterweights while the UBT supervisor unpacked boxes which contained the new scales. While trying to unload the last box, the UBT supervisor lost his grip on a 25 lbs. box and it fell and struck plaintiff on the head. No warning devices or tapes, safety cones, ropes or barricades were in place to indicate the work overhead, and plaintiff was unaware of the overhead work.
Plaintiff sued BKM for its alleged negligence in causing the accident even though neither of the BKM employees dropped the box. BKM moved to have plaintiff’s claims against it dismissed. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s suit against BKM.
Plaintiff appealed claiming that the trial court erred in granting BKM’s motion for summary judgment because issues of fact existed relating to whether BKM was negligent and whether BKM’s negligence caused or contributed to Plaintiff’s injuries. The Fourth Circuit reversed the ruling in favor of Buck Kreihs and remanded the case.
The Court of Appeal started its analysis by noting that OSHA regulations place a burden on an employer to barricade an area to which overhead objects could fall. It also examined BKM’s contract with U.S. United Ocean Services, L.L.C. (“General Services Agreement”), the “Contractor Safety Manual”, and the duty/risk analysis employed by Louisiana courts.
The Court determined that but for the failure of BKM’s employees to barricade the area beneath the boom or provide any of a number of possible warnings, thereby protecting BKM and its employees from their own direct liability for dropping something from above onto a passerby beneath the boom, plaintiff would probably not have suffered injury from the negligence of the UBT’s supervisor. Plaintiff’s claims against Buck Kreihs were reinstated.
D. Why Is This Important?
1. Violations of OSHA are relevant to establishing the negligence of a party.
2. Significant exposure can result from failure to place barricades even when the person that drops an object while performing overhead work is employed by someone else.
3. Understanding risks associated with overhead work and how to address them prior to starting work can help prevent accidents and the corresponding liability.