Decided: February 25, 2014
The Fourth Circuit vacated the decision of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the basis that the plaintiff, Jamie Meyers, assumed a risk that he would be struck by a tractor-trailer while working above an open lane of traffic and because Meyers was contributorily negligent. The case was, therefore, remanded for trial.
This case stems from a collision that occurred when Meyers was working in a utility bucket positioned above an unblocked lane of traffic and a tractor-trailer operated by Michael Lamer struck the bucket. As a result of the collision, Meyers was ejected and suffered injuries to his back and lower body. At the time of the collision, Meyers was performing work for Rommel Engineering & Construction, Inc. (“Rommel”), a company that contracts with the State of Maryland to maintain traffic signals. Meyers’ task that day was to replace the traffic signals at the intersection of Maryland Route 5 and Maryland Route 249. In order to do so, Meyers had to be in a boom-supported bucket positioned above the intersection. Eric Hatfield, who was also employed by Rommel, accompanied Meyers that day as Meyers’ groundsman, tasked with keeping a lookout for oncoming traffic and alerting Meyers when any vehicle approached that might require him to increase his clearance.
The set up for that job required Meyers and Hatfield to park their respective trucks along the shoulder of Route 5. Hatfield’s truck had a light board that displayed blinking lights to signal “caution,” as well as flashing strobe lights, both of which were activated. Meyer’s truck also had flashing strobe lights. Additionally, Meyers and Hatfield placed warning signs along the shoulder of Route 5 to indicate that work was being performed ahead and that drivers should proceed with caution. In the 100 feet immediately before the intersection, Meyers and Hatfield placed cones along the line separating their vehicle travel lane from the should of Route 5, where their trucks were parked. Notably, Hatfield and Meyers did not close the lane of travel adjacent to the shoulder or use flagmen with signs to allow traffic to pass only intermittently. The parties and their experts disputed whether these failures were consistent with the standard of care for the industry.
The collision giving rise to the underlying lawsuit occurred when a tractor-trailer owned by Carrol County Foods, LLC, and operated by Lamer (together, “Appellees”) collided with Meyers’ bucket. Deposition testimony revealed that Meyers informed Hatfield that he had to turn his back to the northbound lane of traffic on Route 5 to perform his work and that Hatfield responded, “[N]o problem, I got you.” Meanwhile, Lamer was on his cell phone as he approached the intersection where Meyers was working and did not notice the caution signs placed along the shoulder of the road leading to the intersection. He did, however, see Meyers’ bucket but erroneously thought that there was enough ground clearance for him to safely pass under the bucket. As a result, Meyer’s was ejected from the bucket. And, although he was wearing a safety harness, he nevertheless suffered injuries to his back and lower body. Meyers filed suit against Appellees in Maryland state court. Appellees, however, removed the action to the district court based on diversity. Following discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court granted Appellees’ motion, reasoning that Meyers assumed a risk that he would be struck by a tractor-trailer while working above an open lane of traffic and because Meyers was contributorily negligent. This appeal followed.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first addressed Meyers contention that the assumption-of-risk doctrine does not apply to him because he was a worker engaged in work-related tasks in the roadway. The court agreed, citing Maryland case law holding that the doctrine does not apply to “persons such as workers in the street … if they are in the course of the normal pursuit of their duties.” The court did so even though Meyers failed to challenge the applicability of the assumption-of-risk defense below stating, “it is the fundamental province of this Court to decide cases correctly, even if that means considering arguments raised for the first time on appeal.”
Next, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on the basis that Meyers was contributorily negligent. In so holding, the court noted that the real issue was not whether Meyers could have done more to protect himself, but rather whether an ordinarily prudent person under the same or similar circumstances would have turned his back to continue working, as Meyers did. After framing the issue as such, the court noted that Meyers and Hatfield had worked together for years and the record lacked any indication that Hatfield had previously failed to warn Meyers to adjust the height of the bucket or that collisions with tractor-trailers commonly occur when a worker is in a bucket and has an assistant on the ground keeping watch for approaching vehicles. The Fourth Circuit, therefore, vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for trial.
-W. Ryan Nichols