Newton v. Caterpillar Corp. et al – Civil Lawsuit After Work Injury
Gregg Hollander | January 7, 2017 | Work Injuries
If you work in construction, landscaping or health care, you know there are many hazards that come with the job. Those who are injured at work in Florida may be eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits, which are the exclusive remedy one has against his or her employer in such matters. However, there could be grounds for a third-party liability lawsuit if there was a person or entity other than the employer who was responsible for what happened.
In the recent case of Newton v. Caterpillar Corp., plaintiff worked as an independent contractor (and therefore not eligible for workers’ compensation), assigned to help clear debris of the private lot of a residential area. He was hired by a hauling company to assist its agent in doing this job. Plaintiff and this agent used a Bobcat loader to assist in helping to clear the lot. The hauling company didn’t own the loader. It was leased from defendant Caterpillar. The loader was brought to the site in a box trailer to the property, where plaintiff and agent worked to clear the land.
At one point, while the two were trying to move a tree stump into the trailer, the agent was operating the loader and asked plaintiff to get inside the trailer to pack down the debris that was coming in. While plaintiff was inside the trailer, the agent released the tree stump. Plaintiff tried to warn the agent he was still inside, but he couldn’t be heard. He tried to climb over the wall of the trailer, but the stump dropped from the loader’s bucket and then rolled back onto plaintiff’s hand. As a result, his middle finger was severed.
Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit alleging the owner of the loader was vicariously liable because the loader was a dangerous instrumentality.
In Florida, the dangerous instrumentality doctrine is one of common law that holds the owner of an inherently dangerous tool (a dangerous instrumentality) can be liable for any injuries caused by that tool’s operation. This doctrine was extended to motor vehicles in 1920, with the Florida Supreme Court decision in Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson. The doctrine imposes strict vicarious liability on the owner of a dangerous instrumentality when that device is entrusted to another person who negligently operates it and causes injury to another.
The question before Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal in Newton was whether the loader could be considered a dangerous instrumentality. The trial court had determined it was not, and therefore plaintiff could not recover on those grounds. The appellate panel agreed.
Courts evaluate whether a device in question a dangerous instrumentality by determining if:
- The object is a motor vehicle;
- There is relative danger posed by the instrumentality;
- Whether the instrumentality is operated in close proximity to the public.
No single factor is determinative and this list isn’t exhaustive. With this framework in mind, the court reviewed evidence weighed by the trial court, including several expert witness testimony. In this case, the loader was equipped with a continuous rubber track that was designed for off-road and unimproved surfaces. The loader was not designed to be operated on public highways, rights-of-way, golf courses, etc. It was also not to be used by the public. There were also 17 reported accidents involving devices sold or leased by this company. Only two of those resulted in serious injury. The injury rate was calculated at three people are injured for every 1,102 continuous loader operation.
The court considered all this information and found that the loader is not a motor vehicle and therefore is not a dangerous instrumentality. Based on this and other evidence, the court ruled this was not a dangerous instrumentality and affirmed the trial court.
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Newton v. Caterpillar Corp., Dec. 14, 2016, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal