Wednesday, May 23, 2007

U-Haul, Unsecured Load, Blood Alcohol, and Contributory Fault

In today's P-I, Tracy Johnson reports that a court filing shows that Maria Federici had a high blood-alcohol level when she was seriously injured by a piece of particle board that came through her windshield. Federici is suing U-Haul because it did not warn people who rented its trailers that large items could fall out and it did not equip the trailers with tie-downs. U-Haul says that Federici's possible intoxication is relevant because it could show contributory fault: perhaps she was following too closely or reacting too slowly to avert the accident. U-Haul: Federici was drunk at time of accident, Seattle P-I, May 23, 2007.

U-Haul's attorney's say Federici's attorneys delayed turning over the lab results; Federici's attorney's deny that, and also question the reliability of the test.

The accident and Federici's injuries inspired Maria's Law, Wash. Laws ch. 431, codified at RCW 46.61.655 , creating the crimes of failure to secure a load in the first degree (a gross misdemeanor) and failure to secure a load in the second degree (a misdemeanor). (The difference is injury to people versus injury to property.) The next year, the legislature amended RCW 7.60.020 to include that crime in the Washington Crime Victims' Compensation Program. 2006 Wash. Laws ch. 268.

The P-I's website allows readers to comment on articles. So far, this one's had 116 comments! I think they show an interesting sample of public attitudes toward the tort system (among other things). The word "scum" is used a lot -- both for U-Haul and for the plaintiff's lawyers (and lawyers as a class). Some writers say the blame should all be with the U-Haul's driver who should have used "common sense" and secured the load, whether or not U-Haul warned him. Some say that we're a culture of victims, looking for someone to blame. Some say U-Haul is only being sued because it has deep pockets. And so on.

By the way, the contributory fault statute is RCW 4.22.

In an action based on fault seeking to recover damages for injury or death to person or harm to property, any contributory fault chargeable to the claimant diminishes proportionately the amount awarded as compensatory damages for an injury attributable to the claimant's contributory fault, but does not bar recovery.
RCW 4.22.050. And if more than one party is liable (say, the driver, U-Haul, and the local U-Haul agent), one or all of them could be held liable:
Except as otherwise provided in RCW 4.22.070, if more than one person is liable to a claimant on an indivisible claim for the same injury, death or harm, the liability of such persons shall be joint and several.
RCW 4.22.030. So -- contrary to what some comment-writers seem to think -- the system doesn't need to seize on just one person to blame for Federici's disabling injuries.

Graphic from King County Solid Waste Division.


Your local hay hauler said...

The creation of this law represents yet another blow to those working in the transportation business: truckers. These individual supply the country, and yet legislation is passed which results in the creation of unreasonable expectations for the securing of loads. For my example I will use hay as the load of choice. By this new law, every bale must be secured, meaning that tarping is required regardless of the weather (NOT FUN). Pardon my saying this, but unless the officer can pull a bale out from the first or second tier, I don’t believe that a ticket should be given to the violating party.

tracy said...

Oh come on hard is it to throw a net over a load and secure it to the truck! Yes, every bale MUST be secured. How is this an unreasonable requirement? How is it unreasonable to ask/require that what you haul stays in your truck? That is all that UHaul had to do was supply the net and appropriate tie down points as part of the trailer rental and they would have been off the hook! That is reasonable!