By John W. Scanlan, J.D.
A US Airways baggage handler who was hospitalized after his head was hit by a suddenly closing baggage door may maintain his claims against the companies that designed, manufactured, and maintained the door because the issues of whether the door was defective and whether he had assumed the risk of injury were in dispute, a Pennsylvania Superior Court held in an unpublished decision, reversing and remanding the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the two companies. In a separate motion, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to US Airways because the baggage handler claimed entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits and, therefore, could not now claim that he was injured outside the course of his employment (Kweh v. US Airways, Inc., October 27, 2017, Ott, P.).
The baggage handler decided to exit the airport building through the door for luggage carts because the pedestrian doorway was blocked by a trash receptacle. The baggage door is a high-speed roll-up door that operates by sensors. While he was passing through the baggage doorway, the door closed and struck him on the head, causing him to lose consciousness. He was treated and released from a hospital and subsequently missed three weeks of work, later receiving workers’ compensation benefits from US Airways.
The baggage handler filed suit against (among other entities) US Airways; Rytec Corp., Inc., which designed and manufactured the door; and American Overhead Door and Dock, Inc., which maintained the door. Rytec and American Overhead moved for summary judgment, arguing that neither owed any duty to the baggage handler because the danger was open and obvious, that he was barred from recovering damages under the Choice of Ways doctrine, and that he had provided no proof of malfunction or defect in the baggage door. The trial court agreed with Rytec and American Overhead, and the worker appealed.
Assumption of risk. Because evidence of warnings was in dispute, the trial court should not have ruled that the baggage handler assumed the risk of injury by using the baggage door on the grounds that the dangers were open and obvious. The trial court determined that there were posted warnings to employees not to walk through the baggage door and employees were instructed at meetings not to walk through the baggage door, and the baggage handler demonstrated his knowledge of these warnings by using the pedestrian door. However, the baggage handler had testified that there were no pedestrian warning signs posted around the baggage door and that he had never been informed in any employee meeting that the baggage doors were dangerous and not to be used by pedestrians. The trial court’s finding that his initial use of the pedestrian door demonstrated his knowledge of the risks was speculative, with the appellate court noting that he previously used the baggage door on several occasions. The trial court should have viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the baggage handler, as the non-moving party.
Choice of Ways doctrine. The trial court should not have ruled that as a matter of law, the baggage handler had opted for the "dangerous path" of exiting through the baggage door when a safe one was available because the baggage handler’s knowledge of the risks of the baggage door was disputed. Furthermore, the doctrine, as it was stated by the trial court, is in conflict with Pennsylvania law regarding comparative negligence, which states that a plaintiff who is contributorily negligent is not completely barred from recovery when his or her negligence is not greater than the negligence of the defendant(s) but simply has recovery of damages reduced proportionately.
Evidence of malfunction or defect. Finally, whether the baggage door was malfunctioning or defective was a disputed issue of fact. The trial court granted summary judgment based on American Overhead’s evidence that it had made a safety check of the door two days before the accident and 16 days afterwards and found no need for repairs or for additional safety recommendations. However, an engineering expert for the baggage handler opined that the baggage door was defectively designed and had been maintained improperly. Because the issue was in dispute, and because the evidence also must be viewed in a light most favorable to the baggage handler, the two companies were not entitled to summary judgment on this issue.
The case is No. 1005 EDA 2016.
Attorneys: Evan Michael Dyer (Law Offices of Louis B. Himmelstein & Associates, PC) for Amos Kweh. William Lawrence Thrall, III (Fowler Hirtzel McNulty & Spaulding LLP) for US Airways. Evan Barrett Caplan (Cozen O'Connor PC) for Turner Construction Co. Christine Elizabeth Munion (William J. Ferren & Associates) for Rytec Corp., Inc.
Companies: US Airways; Turner Construction Co.; Rytec Corp., Inc.
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