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Segura v. Caterpillar Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

January 9, 2018

JUAN SEGURA, Plaintiff,
v.
CATERPILLAR, INC. Defendant.

          ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          XAVIER RODRIGUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On this date, the Court considered Defendant Caterpillar, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (docket no. 34), and the Response and Reply thereto. After careful consideration, the Court will deny the motion.

         Background

         Plaintiff Juan Segura was an employee of Waste Management in San Antonio on October 7, 2015, the date of the incident underlying this lawsuit. According to the First Amended Complaint (docket no. 27), Plaintiff's job required him to pick up receiver boxes containing waste and recyclables from several facilities, including from Caterpillar, Inc.'s premises in Seguin, Texas, and transport them to another location controlled by Waste Management to be emptied. The receiver box is a movable container that works in connection with a separate stationary compactor that compresses the material in the receiver box before being picked up by Waste Management. Plaintiff alleges that he picked up a receiver box “that was packed full of recyclable material from Defendant, Caterpillar, Inc.'s premises” and then took it back to his place of employment and attempted to open the box. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's employees, agents, or representatives were responsible for packing the receiver box, and that “Defendant had overloaded or overpacked the receiver box to such an extent that the metal safety pin that keeps the handle secured popped out and releas[ed] the handle with such force that it struck Plaintiff in the head, face, and eye.”

         In his deposition, Plaintiff testified that the pin holding the door shut was stuck, and after he used a length of pipe and a hammer to free the pin, the handle swung out unexpectedly and struck him. Plaintiff's supervisor testified that all receiver boxes are under some amount of pressure because the onsite compactor compresses the material inside, and excessive pressure can cause the handle to swing out. Elliott depo. at 110. Elliott further testified that Waste Management employees have no way to know how much pressure the box contents are under.

         Plaintiff sues Caterpillar, Inc. for negligence based on its actions in, among other things, (1) failing to provide adequate safety training and instruction for those working upon the site in regard to the packing of the receiver box; (2) over-packing the receiver box causing the receiver safety pin to pop out and the handle to swing with extreme force due to the pressure on the doors; (3) failing to exercise ordinary care in the maintenance and oversight of the compacter and receiver box to insure that the container box did not become overpacked or overloaded; (4) creating an unreasonably dangerous condition by overpacking the container box and failing to warn Plaintiff of the unreasonably dangerous condition; (5) failing to properly ensure that only those competently trained and licensed utilized equipment such as the receiver box; and (6) failing to warn Plaintiff that a dangerous condition existed if the receiver box were to be opened. Defendant now moves for summary judgment, asserting that it owed no duty to Plaintiff as a matter of law.

         Analysis

         Negligence, a common-law doctrine, consists of three essential elements: a legal duty owed by one person to another, a breach of that duty, and damages proximately resulting from the breach. El Chico Corp. v. Poole, 732 S.W.2d 306, 311 (Tex. 1987). “Duty is the threshold inquiry; a plaintiff must prove the existence and violation of a duty owed to him by the defendant to establish liability in tort.” Id. The existence of a duty is generally a question of law for the court. Defendant moves for summary judgment and argues: (1) Caterpillar had no duty to make sure the subcontractor's (Waste Management) employees performed their work in a safe manner; (2) the risk was not foreseeable; and (3) Caterpillar had no duty to warn Plaintiff because Plaintiff was already aware of the potential danger.

         Defendant's first argument - that it owed no duty to make sure subcontractors perform their work in a safe manner - is inapposite. Defendant argues that the undisputed evidence is that Plaintiff worked for Waste Management, at a Waste Management facility, using Waste Management equipment at the time of the injury, and thus Caterpillar did not exercise the kind of control that would give rise to a duty. Defendant cites cases holding that one who entrusts work to an independent contractor may be liable for physical harm to others to the extent it maintains control over the independent contractor's work and fails to exercise that control with reasonable care. E.g., Hoechst-Celanese Corp. v. Mendez, 967 S.W.2d 354 (Tex. 1998).[1]

         But Plaintiff is not complaining of his own or any subcontractor's work, which would trigger an inquiry into the degree of control that Caterpillar maintained or exercised over that work. Rather, he complains that Caterpillar and its employees were negligent in packing the receiver box, an activity for which Caterpillar maintained control and responsibility. See First Am. Compl. ¶ 6 (“Defendant's employees, agents and/or representatives of Defendant, Caterpillar, Inc. were responsible for packing the receiver box.”), id. (“Defendant had overloaded or overpacked the receiver box to such an extent that the metal safety pin that keeps the handle secured popped out ….”). Plaintiff points to the deposition testimony of Plaintiff's supervisor[2] that it was Caterpillar's responsibility to ensure that the receiver box was safe for Waste Management employees and to the contract between Caterpillar and Waste Management to show that Caterpillar agreed to maintain care, custody, and control of the receiver boxes while at its facility and that it agreed not to overload (by weight or volume) the equipment. Docket no. 37-3 (Master Waste and Recycling Agreement between Caterpillar and Waste Management).[3]

         Employers may be liable under respondeat superior principles for the negligent acts of their own employees, as well as for their own negligent acts. Plaintiff alleges that Caterpillar's employee or employees were negligent in packing the receiver box, and that Caterpillar is liable under respondeat superior principles for that negligence. Plaintiff also alleges that Caterpillar was negligent in certain ways, including in failing to provide adequate safety training and instruction for those working on the site in regard to the packing of the receiver box and failing to properly ensure that only those competently trained and licensed utilized the receiver box. Plaintiff thus relies on a traditional common-law duty analysis applicable to an employer's own negligence and its exercise of control over its own employees acting within the course and scope of their employment (the master-servant relationship).[4] See Read v. Scott Fetzer Co., 990 S.W.2d 732, 736 (Tex. 1998) (distinguishing between cases involving a “straightforward common-law duty [balancing] analysis” and the duty emanating from retained control over the details of the work of an independent contractor). Caterpillar's motion for summary judgment on the basis that it had no control over its subcontractor's employees and thus owed no duty is denied.[5]

         Caterpillar next argues that it had no duty because the risk was not foreseeable. In determining whether the defendant was under a duty, the court will consider several interrelated factors, including the risk, foreseeability, and likelihood of injury weighed against the social utility of the actor's conduct, the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury, and the consequences of placing the burden on the defendant. Greater Houston Transp. Co. v. Phillips, 801 S.W.2d 523, 525 (Tex. 1990). Of all these factors, foreseeability of the risk is “the foremost and dominant consideration.” Id.

         “Foreseeability” means that the actor, as a person of ordinary intelligence, should have anticipated the dangers that his negligent act created for others. Travis v. City of Mesquite, 830 S.W.2d 94, 98 (Tex. 1992). Foreseeability does not require that a person anticipate the precise manner in which injury will occur once he has created a dangerous situation through his negligence; it requires only that the general danger be foreseeable. However, along with the general danger, it must also be foreseeable that the particular plaintiff, or someone similarly situated, would be harmed by that danger. Mellon Mortgage Co. v. Holder, 5 S.W.3d 654, 655 (Tex. 1999). Stated broadly, we consider both the foreseeability of the general danger and the foreseeability that a particular plaintiff - or one similarly situated - would be harmed by that danger. Id. Thus, in order for the actor to be negligent with respect to the other, his conduct must create a recognizable risk of harm to the other individually or to a class of persons of which the other is a member. Id. (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 281 cmt. c (1965)).

         Although the existence of duty is typically a legal question, when the essential facts about foreseeability as an element of duty are disputed, the question is a fact issue. See Union Pacific R. Co. v. Williams, 85 S.W.3d 162, 166 (Tex. 2002). Stated another way, the existence of a duty is a question of law only when all of the essential facts are undisputed. See Walls v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins., No. 05-97-02212-CV, 2000 WL 805220, at *4 (Tex. App.- Dallas June 23, 2000, pet. denied). When the evidence does not conclusively establish the pertinent facts ...


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