UPS worker Stephen Moore sued William Jessup University over an injury he suffered after handling a package that was significantly heavier than indicated on the package’s label. A California Appeals Court found for the university under the tort doctrine of assumption of risk, underscoring the power of the the police/fireman rule in California.
Stephen Moore, an employee with UPS with a decade’s worth of experience, was injured when he attempted to move a box that had been inadvertently mislabeled by defendant William Jessup University (WJU) with the incorrect weight. The label declared the weight of the box to be about 48 pounds when in reality the box probably weighed closer to 80 pounds. Moore sustained injuries to his shoulder and sued on negligence. WJU defended by asserting both that it owed Moore no duty of care; and that even if it did, Moore assumed the risk of improperly labeled parcels.
The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of WSJ. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed.
“Primary” Assumption of Risk
According to the court, California recognizes the common law doctrine of assumption of risk and breaks the rule down into two categories: primary and secondary. In secondary assumption of risk, the defendant breaches an owed duty to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds with the risky behavior anyway. In such cases, comparative fault analysis is applied.
However, in primary assumption of risk, the operative question revolves on whether or not the harm the plaintiff suffered stemmed from a risk that was inherent to her activities. In such cases, California courts find that like defendants are completely excused of any liability because they owed no duty of care to the plaintiff. And this was what the court found in Moore.
The Fireman’s Rule — Redux
The court launched into detail over California’s various case law implicating the fireman’s rule — the common law doctrine which removes a fireman or policeman’s right to sue for injuries that sprang from risks inherent in the work. For example, in California, a policeman might lose on the fireman’s rule for suit to recover for injuries in a high speed chase; or injuries sustained in responding to a domestic violence call.
The court essentially relied on the language used in Priebe v. Nelson: It would be “[u]nfair to charge defendant[s] with a duty of care to prevent injury to…plaintiff[s] arising from the very condition[s] or hazard[s] the defendant[s] ha[d] contracted with the plaintiff[s] to remedy or confront.”
Applied to Moore, WSJ did not increase the chance of injury to Moore and the risk of a negligent mislabeling was the very type of hazard of condition that Moore was hired to confront. As such, it was an inherent risk of his job. Because of this, WSJ owed no duty to Moore.
Just How Heavy?
The court’s ruling leaves open questions. It is black-letter that a defendant must not increase the risk of injury to plaintiff. But at what weight would the risk of injury passed over from being inherent to Moore’s job to being a flat-out increase in the risk to Moore? 90 pounds? 105? We’ll have to wait and see.