N.H. SC says trial court correct to apportion fault to USPS

Jessica M. Karmasek Oct. 6, 2011, 12:13pm


CONCORD, N.H. (Legal Newsline) - The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled last month that a trial court did not err in allowing a jury to apportion fault to a man's employer in a personal injury case.

However, the Court said the trial court wrongly denied the plaintiff, Alred Ocasion, any recovery against defendant FedEx.

Ocasion was a mail handler for the U.S. Postal Service. His job included pulling, by hand, large canisters or air cans filled with mail from delivery tractor-trailer trucks.

On Feb. 17, 2002, Ocasion was pulling air cans from a FedEx truck when he accidentally stepped into and caught his leg in a gap between the rear of the truck and the loading dock.

When the air can he had been pulling continued to roll toward him, the bones of his trapped leg were shattered.

Although the man's leg was saved after reconstructive surgery, it is of limited use. He can't stand or walk for very long and can't lift or carry heavy things. He has since lost his job at the USPS.

Ocasion sued FedEx for damages, alleging that FedEx's negligence caused his injuries.

Consistent with the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, he did not name as a defendant the USPS, his immune employer.

Before trial, he also moved in limine to preclude the jury from apportioning fault for his injuries to the USPS, arguing that if the jury were to do so, he "would essentially be punished for receiving benefits from his negligent employer."

The trial court denied the motion, and gave the jury a special verdict form requiring it to consider whether the USPS was legally at fault to any degree.

The jury found Ocasion's damages to be $1,445,700, and found that he was 6 percent at fault, FedEx was 4 percent at fault and the USPS was 90 percent at fault.

Thereafter, FedEx moved for entry of judgment in its favor arguing that because Ocasion's percentage of fault was greater than FedEx's percentage of fault, Ocasion was not entitled to recover any damages against FedEx. The trial court agreed, and Ocasion appealed.

Ocasion argues that the trial court erred when it allowed the jury to apportion fault to the USPS and entered judgment for FedEx.

The Court, in its 16-page ruling filed Sept. 22, affirmed in part and reversed in part the trial court's decision. Justice Carol Ann Conboy authored the Court's majority opinion.

The Court said it disagreed with Ocasion that apportioning fault to immune employers affects, in any way, the benefits and burdens under either the Federal Employees' Compensation Act or state Workers' Compensation Law.

Both, the Court explained, are based on the fundamental quid pro quo of employer tort immunity in exchange for no-fault workers' compensation benefits.

"Allocating fault to an immune employer does not disturb this quid pro quo relationship between employee and employer or the legislative policy underlying it. A plaintiff may still obtain benefits, without having to prove the employer's negligence, and the employer is still immune from liability," Conboy wrote.

And contrary to Ocasion's assertions, allocating fault to an employer does not destroy, or even affect, the employer's immunity from suit, the Court said.

Immunity does not mean that a party is not at fault; it simply means that the party cannot be sued, it explained.

The Court said it also wasn't persuaded that "fairness" dictates that a non-employer defendant, such as FedEx in this case, should be responsible for paying a plaintiff's entire damage award -- particularly when the non-employer is only minimally at fault and the immune employer is nearly completely at fault.

However, the Court found that the trial court's entering judgment on FedEx's behalf was in error.

The word "defendant," it said, cannot be limited to the named defendants in the plaintiff's suit, but must include any tortfeasor found to have caused the plaintiff's injuries.

"If we were to construe the words 'party' and 'defendant' to refer only to the defendant named in a plaintiff's civil suit, a defendant could have fault apportioned to an immune party under the apportionment statute, RSA 507:7-e, but could then shield itself from liability for any damages under the comparative fault statute, RSA 507:7-d, even where it is a wrongdoer," Conboy wrote.

"Such a construction would undermine the purpose underlying RSA 507:7-d, which is to 'allocate more equitably the responsibility for injuries due to negligent conduct on the part of parties on both sides of a lawsuit.'"

In this case, the trial court should have aggregated the USPS' fault with FedEx's fault for the purpose of determining whether Ocasion's fault barred him from recovery.

The Court said because the plaintiff's fault is less than the aggregated fault of the USPS and FedEx, he is not barred from recovery; however, because FedEx is less than 50 percent at fault, the plaintiff's damages are limited to the damages attributable to FedEx, which is 4 percent of the total damages found by the jury.

Judgment, it said, should have been awarded in the plaintiff's favor against FedEx in the amount of 4 percent of the total damages found by the jury -- that is, $57,828, plus statutory interest and allowable costs.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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