Negligent Maintenance & Repair, Bases of Duty

Lands v. Ward, [Ms. 1191074, June 25, 2021] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2021). The Court (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., and Shaw, Bryan, and Mendheim, JJ., concur) affirms in part and reverses in part a summary judgment entered by the Morgan Circuit Court in favor of the owner of a Peterbilt truck used to haul timber where Plaintiff was injured when attempting to hot-wire the truck to get it started, the truck started suddenly, and then rolled forward injuring the Plaintiff. The circuit court concluded the Plaintiff failed to prove the bases of any duties owed by the owner of the truck to sustain claims for negligence and wantonness. Reversing, the Supreme Court finds duties were indeed owed by the owner of the truck to inspect, repair, and maintain it, as imposed by statute, federal regulations, and Alabama common law.

First, the Court notes that regulations promulgated by the Federal and Motor Carrier Safety Administration and incorporated into the Alabama Code by reference pursuant to § 32-9A-2(a)(1), imposed a duty upon the truck owner to inspect the truck and maintain it in a safe condition. Ms. *7. The Court explains (Ms. *8) “[i]n a negligence action, it is possible for a legal duty imposed by statute or regulation to inform the common-law standard of reasonable care or to supplant it entirely.” Id., citing Parker Bldg. Servs. Co. v. Lightsey, ex rel Lightsey, 925 So. 2d 927, 930-31 (Ala. 2005). Accordingly, “[a] violation of [a safety] statute or ordinance can, therefore, be evidence of negligence under certain circumstances.” Id., quoting Murray v. Alabama Power Co., 413 So. 2d 1109, 1114 (Ala. 1982). “The decision of whether a violation occurred, whether such violation was negligence, and whether such negligence was the proximate cause of the injuries complained of, will ... be left ... to the jury.” Id.

Specific regulations applicable to inspection, repair, and maintenance of trucks include 49 C.F.R. § 396.3(a) which provides “Every motor carrier ... must systematically inspect, repair, and maintain, or cause to be systematically inspected, repaired or maintained, all motor vehicles ... subject to its control.” This regulation has been incorporated into Alabama law by § 32-9A-2(a)(1), along with the regulations (49 C.F.R. § 396.3(a) and 49 C.F.R. § 390.5) defining “motor carrier” to include the term “employer” which means “any person engaged in a business affecting interstate commerce who owns or leases a commercial motor vehicle in connection with that business.” Id., Ms. *9. The pertinent Alabama statute, § 32-9A-2(a)(1) provides, as pertinent “no person may operate a commercial motor vehicle in this state, or fail to maintain required records or reports, in violation of the federal motor carrier safety regulations as prescribed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, 49 C.F.R. ... Parts 390-399 and as they may be amended in the future.” Ms. **9-10. Furthermore, an additional regulation, 49 C.F.R. § 369.7(a) specifies “[a] motor vehicle shall not be operated in such a condition as to likely cause an accident or a breakdown of the vehicle.” The Court explains (Ms. *10) that these regulations “are designed to prevent motor carriers from shirking responsibility if someone gets hurt in an accident involving a commercial motor vehicle.”

The Court concludes the owner of the Peterbilt truck qualifies as a motor carrier because it meets the definition of “employer.” It is “engaged in a business affecting interstate commerce” and “own[s] or lease[s] a commercial motor vehicle in connection with that business.” Ms. **10-11, quoting 49 C.F.R. § 390.5. Because, through its ownership of the truck, the Defendant owner is “engaged in a business affecting interstate commerce,” the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act regulations could be found by the jury to impose duties of care upon the Defendant to properly inspect, repair, and maintain the Peterbilt truck which injured the Plaintiff.

Additionally, the owner owed a duty to inspect and maintain the truck under Alabama common law. The Court, quoting Motor Terminal & Transp. Co. v. Millican, 244 Ala. 39, 43, 12 So. 2d 96, 99 (1943), reiterates (Ms. **15-16) that “[i]f the use of [an] instrumentality threatens serious danger to others unless it is in good condition, there is a duty to take reasonable care to ascertain its condition by inspection.” Alabama’s common law rule is:

“ ‘[T]he owner or operator of a motor vehicle must exercise reasonable care in the inspection of the machine, and is chargeable with notice of everything that such inspection would disclose. This rule applies where the operator is the owner of the vehicle or rents it from another, or permits another to use it, or lets it to another for hire. But in the absence of anything to show that the appliances were defective, the owner or driver is not required to inspect them before using the car or permitting it to be used.’ ”

Ms. *16, quoting Millican, supra.

Still further, a duty of care could be found by the jury to have arisen in this instance from the foreseeability of harm caused by the necessity of using a jumper wire to start the Peterbilt truck. The Court reiterates familiar rules of how foreseeability can form the basis of duty under Alabama common law:

“ ‘Foreseeability does not require that the particular consequence should have been anticipated, but rather that some general harm or consequence should have been anticipated.’ ” City of Birmingham v. Benson, 631 So. 2d 902, 907 (Ala. 1993) (quoting Thetford v. City of Clanton, 605 So. 2d 835, 840 (Ala. 1992)). “[T]he test is not what [the defendant] in fact knew, but whether it was reasonably foreseeable that a failure to maintain the [device] in a safe condition could cause injury to a third party.” Lance, Inc. v. Ramanauskas, 731 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Ala. 1999). Here, it is certainly foreseeable that a failure to maintain a longhaul truck according to safety regulations would result in an injury to a third party – especially the driver of that vehicle. Protecting the public and the driver is precisely the reason trucking safety regulations exist. See Phillips, 565 So. 2d at 70 (quoting Transamerican Freight Lines, 423 U.S. at 37) (“ ‘ “The purpose of the [automotive] rules is to protect the industry from practices detrimental to the maintenance of sound transportation services ...” and to assure safety of operation.’ ”).

Ms. *17.

The Court rejects the owner’s contention it was relieved of liability because it had leased the truck to another business. The Court notes that 49 C.F.R. §§ 376.11(a) and 376.12 impose specific requirements upon authorized carriers to use vehicles they do not own pursuant to a written lease, which must include language providing that “the authorized carrier lessee shall have exclusive possession, control, and use of the equipment for the duration of the lease, and that the authorized carrier lessee shall assume complete responsibility for the operation of the equipment for the duration of the lease.” Ms. **18-19.

The Court also reiterates familiar principles of why the issue of proximate cause could not properly be resolved on summary judgment:

It is well established that proximate cause is generally a jury question. Giles v. Gardner, 287 Ala. 166, 169, 249 So. 2d 824, 826 (1971). “[I]t is only when the facts are such that reasonable men must draw the same conclusion that the question of proximate cause is one of law for the courts.” Id. Like the duty analysis, proximate cause accounts for foreseeability, which has been labeled “the cornerstone of proximate cause.” Alabama Power Co. v. Taylor, 293 Ala. 484, 498, 306 So. 2d 236, 249 (1975). An injury is deemed foreseeable if it is the “ ‘ “ ‘ “natural, although not the necessary and inevitable, result of the negligent fault.” ’ ” ’ ” Looney v. Davis, 721 So. 2d 152, 162 (Ala. 1998) (quoting Lawson v. General Tel. Co. of Alabama, 289 Ala. 283, 289, 267 So. 2d 132, 138 (Ala. 1972)). “Thus, generally a defendant may be found liable if some physical injury of the general type the plaintiff sustained was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent conduct, even though the extent of the physical injuries may have been quite unforeseeable.” Id. (emphasis added).

What is foreseeable can be broader than what the defendant actually knew. Lance, 731 So. 2d at 1209. Foreseeability encompasses “ ‘all consequences which a prudent and experienced person, fully acquainted with all the circumstances, at the time of his negligent act, would have thought reasonably possible to follow that act, including the negligence of others.’ ” Looney, 721 So. 2d at 159 (internal citation omitted).

Ms. **21-23.

Finally, the Court rejects the contention that the Plaintiff was contributorily negligent as a matter of law:

The question of contributory negligence is “normally one for the jury” to decide. Wyser v. Ray Sumlin Constr. Co., 680 So. 2d 235, 238 (Ala. 1996). To obtain summary judgment based on contributory negligence, the moving party must show two things: (1) that the plaintiff put himself in danger’s way and (2) that the plaintiff had a conscious appreciation of the danger at the moment the incident in question occurred. Hannah v. Gregg, Bland & Berry, Inc., 840 So. 2d 839, 860 (Ala. 2002). Further, “[w]e protect against the inappropriate use of a summary judgment to establish contributory negligence as a matter of law by requiring the defendant on such a motion to establish by undisputed evidence a plaintiff’s conscious appreciation of the danger.” Id. at 861 (emphasis added).

Ms. *24.

Because Plaintiff had made out a prima facie case of negligence, the issues concerning duty, causation, and Plaintiff’s own possible negligence were required to be answered by a jury. Accordingly, the Court reverses the Morgan Circuit Court’s summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim and remands the case for further proceedings.

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