Mere Possibility is Not Fact: Baton Rouge Negligence Claim Falls to Summary Judgment

boxes_stack_boxes_stacking-scaledSummary judgment is designed to enable judicial expediency and cost-effectiveness in the courts. It is an important and complicated procedure that can occur repeatedly during litigation. When summary judgment is asserted repeatedly in the same case, how do parties prevail in their attempts to get or defeat summary judgment motions? The following case helps answer that question. 

Ozark Motor Lines transported a packed Ozark trailer from Restoration Hardware to Baton Rouge. In Baton Rouge, Exel Inc. received the trailer, and Exel employee, plaintiff, Alex Talbert, was injured by the boxes being unloaded from the trailer. Talbert then brought a personal injury suit against Restoration Hardware and Ozark for damages, arguing that the trailer was negligently packed and thus caused Talbert’s injuries. 

Restoration Hardware was dismissed from the lawsuit, and later, Ozark moved for summary judgment twice. The trial court denied the first motion, but the second motion was granted after Ozark submitted additional documents to the court. Talbert appealed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for Ozark, arguing that issues of material fact remained and that the court should not have heard Ozark’s second motion. 

 Appellate courts conduct a new assessment of evidence to decide whether the trial court’s summary judgment is appropriate. Summary judgment is an appropriate ruling if all the evidence shows no genuine issue of material fact exists. La. Code Civ. P. art. 966(A)(3). The party moving for summary judgment has the responsibility to show the court that no issues of material fact exist on the record. This responsibility, however, only applies to the issues that the moving party must show at trial. After the moving party shows the court that one or more elements of the other party’s claims lack support, the other party must provide evidence that summary judgment is still inappropriate. La. Code Civ. P. art 966(D)(1)

Talbert had the burden of proving Ozark’s breach of duty and the standard of care to support his negligence claim. The five requirements of this showing include (1) the defendant had a duty to conduct a standard of care, (2) the defendant did not meet this standard, (3) the defendant’s conduct actually caused the plaintiff’s injuries, (4) the defendant’s conduct legally caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and (5) the existence of actual damages. Bufkin v. Felipe’s Louisiana. The existence of duty is a question of law, and in negligence cases, there is a largely universal duty for the defendant to use reasonable care to avoid injury to others. Rando v. Anco Insulations Inc.

Talbert argued that the second motion brought by Ozark was barred by issue preclusion because the motion was the same as the first denied motion. La. R.S. 13:4231. However, under Louisiana law, denial of an initial summary judgment motion does not prohibit a second summary judgment motion. Bozarth v. State LSU Medical Center/Chabert Medical Center. The appellate court rejected this argument. 

Talbert also appealed, arguing the trial court incorrectly determined that no issues of material fact remained. Specifically, Talbert argued that there was still a genuine dispute as to whether Ozark had a duty to inspect the trailer’s safety and whether Ozark breached such a duty and caused Talbert’s injury. Ozark, in response, argued that there was no evidence of any duty, breach, or causation, particularly because Ozark was not involved in or present at the unloading of the trailer at Exel in Baton Rouge. 49 C.F.R. 392.9 provides that inspection duties do not apply to sealed commercial motor vehicles, and Ozark posited that the trailer was sealed such that Ozark did not have a responsibility to inspect the sealed trailer. 

Testimony from Exel confirmed that the trailer was still sealed upon its arrival and that Exel has a policy to inspect the trailer once it is opened. Testimony from Ozark employees stated that Ozark’s driver was not permitted to inspect the trailer after picking it up for transport. Testimony from Restoration Hardware stated that Ozark drivers could inspect the trailer if they asked for Restoration Hardware’s consent, but that is extremely rare. 

Based on the evidence, the court found that Ozark had no duty to inspect the trailer or the security of the trailer’s contents. The trailer was sealed, Ozark was instructed not to open the trailer, and Ozark’s only role in these events was transporting a sealed trailer. Talbert presented evidence that the trailer may have been poorly loaded; however, it takes more than a mere possibility to prove facts and defeat summary judgment. Hawkins v. Fowler. Because Ozark presented evidence that it did not owe Talbert a duty to inspect the trailer, and Talbert failed to provide support for the duty and standard of care elements,  the court affirmed summary judgment for Ozark. 

Additional Sources: Talbert v. Restoration Hardware, Inc. 

Written By Berniard Law Firm

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Motions for Summary Judgment: Appellate Court Affirms Second Motion for Summary Judgment After Rejecting the First

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