California Court Uses Firefighter’s Rule to Bar Negligence Action By UPS Driver

Applying the firefighter’s rule, a specialized assumption of risk doctrine under which, in its most classic form, a person who starts a fire is said to owe no duty of care to the firefighter who is employed to respond to fires [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 110.08], a California appellate court has affirmed summary judgment in favor of a university that had been sued by a UPS driver who was injured when he lifted a box with a shipping label prepared by a university employee that inaccurately stated the weight of the box [Moore v. William Jessup Univ., 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 1161 (Dec. 28, 2015)].

Background

The driver, who had some 20 years experience lifting and handling packages for UPS, sustained a back injury while lifting a number of boxes that had been prepared for shipment by a university employee. Each of the boxes had a label that indicated the weight was 48 pounds. When the driver lifted the fifth box, he felt pain in his back. He said the weight of that fifth box was 70 pounds or more. The driver filed a workers’ compensation claim and was awarded various disability and medical benefits. He sued the university in tort, alleging his injuries were caused by the improper labeling of the box to be shipped. The University moved for summary judgment on the ground that it did not owe a duty to protect the driver from injuries arising from lifting heavy boxes—an inherent risk of his employment—and that the University did not increase the risk inherent in the driver’s job. The trial court granted the university’s motion and entered judgment in its favor.

Firefighter’s Rule

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s determination, noting the firefighter’s rule, and the analogous veterinarian’s rule, are examples of the primary assumption of risk doctrine applied in the employment context. Those rules are based on the public policy principle that it is unfair to charge the defendant with a duty of care to prevent injury to the plaintiff arising from the very condition or hazard the defendant has contracted with the plaintiff to remedy or confront. The appellate court concluded that the risk of injury from lifting heavy boxes that may be labeled with inaccurate weight information was inherent in the driver’s job as a UPS delivery driver, and the university did not owe a duty to protect the driver from that risk; nor did it increase the risk of harm to the driver.

The California court observed that other courts had decided the issue similarly. For example, in Sepulveda-Vega v. Suffolk Bancorp., 119 A. D. 3d 850, 989 N.Y.S.2d 371 (2d Dep’t, 2014), a New York court held that a courier for an armored car service could not hold others responsible for his injury resulting from lifting a heavy bag of coins because that sort of injury was an ordinary and obvious hazard of his job. He had elected to lift the bag without assistance, and the bag was not over an accepted or contractually agreed upon weight.

Driver Assumed Risk of Heavy Boxes

The California court said that here the driver had 20 years of experience lifting and handling packages for UPS. He controlled how he would move the boxes he encountered at the university. UPS did not require the boxes to be labeled with their weight. The driver had the option of calling for assistance from another UPS employee. He was in the best position to guard against lifting injuries. Under the particular circumstances of this case, the court said the university had no duty to protect the driver against his injuries.

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