Johnson & Bell Shareholders, Gregory D. Conforti and David A. Warnick, secured summary judgment in a wrongful death case in DeKalb County. The plaintiff, the widow of a decedent truck driver, alleged that our client, a large food manufacturing company, and its janitorial service contractor, negligently loaded a semi-truck trailer full of recyclable materials which was picked up by the decedent and which subsequently caused his death. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that after picking up the trailer full of recyclable materials, the decedent stopped his truck on the side of the road, walked to the back of the trailer to check the load because it had shifted. And when the decedent opened the trailer doors, the load spilled out and caused his death. There were no witnesses to the occurrence and therefore nobody could corroborate any single version of events. There was also no evidence from any post-occurrence witness to corroborate that the trailer load was in disarray. In fact, the trailer was taken from the scene to its intended destination without incident.
In support of summary judgment, defendants argued that plaintiff’s case was based entirely on speculation and should not be decided by a jury. And that plaintiff’s allegations were not even the most plausible scenario given the circumstantial evidence. For example, there was not even agreement about the mechanism of the decedent’s injuries and subsequent death. The hospital personnel and coroner identified an injury pattern that was not necessarily consistent with plaintiff’s theory of the incident (e.g., decedent’s injuries were to one ankle and then a single wound to the back of the head presumably from hitting the ground with force. The trailer contents included very heavy bales of over 200 lbs., so if they would have landed on top of decedent, the medical providers expected to see internal injuries between foot and neck to match plaintiff’s theory of events). In other words, the injuries suggested that the decedent could have fallen from the trailer (height) as opposed to being knocked to the ground while standing behind the trailer.
There was also no way to know whether the decedent’s driving may have caused a shift in trailer contents, if one actually occurred. The bales could have shifted within the trailer because of a sudden stop, from striking a curb, or even from wind. There was also no evidence, regulation or otherwise, that the recyclable bales were required to be immobilized such that no movement was permissible. There was evidence that the decedent would have had to approve the trailer load before departing the warehouse at pickup. Lastly, there was no explanation why the decedent would have stopped the truck on the side of the road and opened the rear trailer doors. There would not have been any way to modify the load at that point. We know he made no phone calls as would have been required in a situation where he did not feel it was safe to proceed.
In the end, the court ruled that summary judgment was appropriate because plaintiff’s allegations were too speculative to submit to a jury.