Sixth Circuit: Other companies can be held liable in beam accident

Jessica M. Karmasek May 15, 2012, 1:20pm


CINCINNATI (Legal Newsline) - A federal appeals court said a district court erred in ruling that only the owner of a trailer, which transported an oversized 28-ton beam causing a fatal car accident, could be held liable in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Monday reversed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan's ruling.

The district court had construed Michigan law to preclude liability against three defendants, American Bridge Manufacturing, Sherman Brothers Trucking and Trans/Mid-America Inc. However, it held the fourth defendant, E.R. Express, liable.

"Nothing in the words of the statute, or any plausible policy argument, precludes American Bridge, Sherman Brothers or Trans/Mid-America from being found liable for a portion of the damages resulting from the accident," Judge Danny J. Boggs wrote for the Sixth Circuit.

Pavel Karkhu, an employee of E.R. Express, was driving the trailer carrying the beam from Oregon to Michigan at the time of the accident.

American Bridge had loaded the beam onto the trailer in Oregon, and had hired Sherman Brothers to arrange for a carrier to transport the beam to Michigan. Sherman Brothers, in turn, hired E.R. Express and contracted with Trans/Mid-America to obtain the requisite permits to haul the beam to Michigan.

American Bridge was required to record the height of the load and provide that information to Trans/Mid-America. The company recorded the height, with the beam on the trailer, as 13 feet, 9 inches.

In fact, it was greater than 13 feet, 10.5 inches -- too tall to pass under the Warren Avenue Bridge on Interstate 94 in Michigan.

As a result, when Karkhu approached the overpass, the oversized beam struck the bridge, which dislodged it from the trailer and forced it to fall off the back, crushing the cab of Nickie Donald's truck.

Donald, who was trapped with no chance of rescue, bled until he lost consciousness and then died.

Mai Roquemore, representing Donald's estate, filed a wrongful death action against all four defendants.

The district court granted motions for summary judgment in favor of just the three -- that is, the companies that were responsible for loading the beam on the trailer, hiring the trucking company and obtaining permits.

The court ruled that Michigan law forbids recovery from anyone other than the "owner of a vehicle that collides with a lawfully established bridge."

The Sixth Circuit disagreed, reversing the district court ruling and remanding the case.

Boggs said the lower court had wrongly relied on a previous ruling, Farmer v. Christensen.

"Farmer does not fix absolute liability on the vehicle owner to the complete exclusion of any concurrent or intervening cause that may be proved or to the complete exclusion of comparative negligence or joint and several liability," the circuit judge wrote.

"Farmer, at most, implies that others who pay -- by settlement, judgment or grace -- may be able to shift their liability to an owner, not that they can have no liability in the first instance."

Boggs continued, "The mere fact that liability for 'all damages and injury' is 'fixed' on the owner of the vehicle 'even where concurrent or intervening acts of negligence precipitate' the accident, does not imply that the tortfeasors responsible for those 'concurrent or intervening acts' cannot also be liable."

The Sixth Circuit noted that because it is a common-law negligence case, all of the "ordinary" Michigan principles concerning common-law liability and defenses apply.

"Otherwise, a plaintiff injured by the joint negligence of an owner and others would receive nothing if the owner is judgment-proof, cannot be reached, or cannot be found," Boggs wrote.

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