Chain Of Fools - Examining the hidden dangers of safety devices

Plaintiff Tommy Maddox was a delivery man who made deliveries to a grocery store owned by Defendant, Townsend & Sons, in Columbus, Mississippi. Prior to the accident at issue, Maddox had made deliveries to the store twice a week for eight months. On September 26, 2005, Maddox wheeled his delivery cart up a ramp to the top of the store’s concrete loading dock, which was situated approximately five feet off the ground. While waiting on the dock for his turn to unload, Maddox leaned or sat on a chain hanging about thirty inches high between two metal posts that supported the roof of the loading dock. The S-hook connecting the chain to the other post straightened under his weight and gave way. Maddox fell off the dock, breaking his pelvis and suffering other injuries.

Maddox and his wife brought suit against Townsend & Sons in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. They alleged that Townsend & Sons failed to keep its premises reasonably safe and failed to warn Maddox of unknown dangers. Townsend & Sons filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which requested that the Court dismiss the case outright on the basis that there were no factual issues and that the law favored dismissal rather than having the case be determined by a jury. The Court granted the defendant’s Motion and held the property to be reasonably safe.  In doing so, it rejected the argument that the S-hook was the hazard and found the danger to be the five foot drop-off of the loading dock. The drop being obvious, the Court ruled that the premises were reasonably safe beyond any reasonable dispute of material fact because, under Mississippi law, premises owners do not have to warn against obvious hazards.  The Maddoxes appealed this decision.

The United States Court for the Fifth Circuit began its analysis of the Maddox appeal by reciting the underlying Mississippi law with regard to premises owners. Under the circumstances of this case, Maddox was deemed an “invitee.”  The Court further instructed that a premises owner is not an insurer of the safety of invitees, but owes a duty of reasonable care to maintain the premises in a reasonable safe condition. This duty also includes an ancillary duty to warn invitees of any dangerous conditions not readily apparent which the owner knew, or should have known, and a concomitant duty to conduct reasonable inspections to discover dangerous conditions existing on the premises.  In similar cases, courts employ a two-part test requiring two separate inquiries: (1) whether the premises owner kept the premises reasonably safe, and (2) whether the owner warned of hidden dangers of which the owner knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known. A breach of either part supports a negligence claim against the premises owner. Importantly, the Court noted that these Mississippi liability principles are consistent with the approach followed in other states. 

Maddox claimed that Townsend & Sons breached both duties when it (1) failed to keep its property reasonably safe by inspecting and replacing the S-hook, and (2) to warn him about the dangerous S-hook about which it should have known.  Townsend & Sons stated that the purpose of the chain was to stop someone from backing off the dock when maneuvering a load, but the Court’s response was that a safety device that merely serves the intended purpose does not control the inquiry into “reasonable safety.” The Court reasoned that if a premises owner used a safety device to protect invitees from one kind of hazard but in so doing created a hazard of a different kind, then an issue of fact would remain of whether the owner should have anticipated that risk. The Court analogized a situation whereby a premises owner places safety reflectors on an entrance way to safely guide vehicles, but creates a tripping hazard for pedestrians.

The Court also examined whether Townsend & Sons failed to warn Maddox of the danger posed by the chain and five foot drop. One issue it discovered was whether the defendant should have anticipated that the chain posed as a convenient place for deliverymen to sit while waiting their turn on the busy loading dock, and whether they should have anticipated placing chairs on the dock or else directed the waiting deliverymen to an area that did not place them in harm of a five foot drop. The Court concluded that the evidence and testimony created an issue of fact as to the reasonable safety of the premises, and, thus, summary judgment was not appropriate.

Take Away: Premises owners owe invitees the duty to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition, and warn them of any hidden dangers; however, in so doing, premises owners must be careful that their safety devices and procedures do not create hidden dangers of their own.

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