In a tough case involving crippling injuries to a Charlotte worker, the North Carolina Court of Appeals just last month handed down a case that once again proves that just because someone who is injured on your property — even someone who has been invited there — does not mean that you are legally liable to pay the resulting damages. Burnham v. S&L Sawmill, Inc, et al. NC Ct of Appls Case # COA12-1581
Nicholas Burnham worked as a dump truck driver for McGee Brothers Company in 2008, when he made a trip to the sawmill operated by S & L Sawmill, Inc. Once there, his task was to drive on to a scale to weigh the load, untie the binding straps which secured the load,, unload the logs and receive payment for the delivery before leaving. Although he had done this on numerous occasions previously, parking his truck in the same spot without incident, on April 3, 2008 his truck “was ‘fairly’ although not completely, level” with the truck leaning to the side slightly. As he engaged in the unloading process, a binding strap “snapped out” towards the place where he was standing, and a falling log rolled off and struck him, crippling him. He is now permanently confined to a wheelchair.
This case argued by three attorneys I know very well and for whom I have great respect, and the appellate decision was written by a Davidson classmate of mine, the Honorable Sam J. (“Jimmy”) Ervin IV. (Bribe me with enough wine, and I’ll tell you some not so “honorable” stories…heh, heh.)
In essence, Judge Ervin upheld the ruling by the trial judge (Yvonne Mims Evans is another jurist I know well, and for whom I have great respect) by explaining that the Plaintiff simply had not shown exactly what duty the Defendants had breached toward Mr. Burnham.
This opinion is a good “teaching” case, in that it quotes extensively from basic case law to more fully define and explain a landowner’s responsibilities. Judge Ervin quoted the seminal case of Nelson v. Freeland, 149 NC 615 (1998), as well as some others, as he tried to convey the delicate balance needed to hold landowners responsible for taking reasonable precautions for safety, but not making them liable for every injury that happens to occur on their property:
The ultimate issue…..
Having thus explained the law, Judge Ervin applied it in this case: “After carefully reviewing the record, we have been unable to find any record evidence tending to show that Defendants either created the condition which caused Plaintiff’s injury or failed to correct such a condition after notice of its existence.” And so the landowner wins, and the injured plaintiff doesn’t even get to a trial.
One final note: The next time you hear at some cocktail party some blowhard spouting off about how “everyone’s getting rich off of the legal system,” remind them that it’s just not so. I have no doubt the Plaintiff’s attorneys invested thousands of dollars on their own money to help their client and don’t have a dime to show for it. And neither the Defendant, nor its insurance company, didn’t have to pay a dime to a person horribly injured on its property.
Justice is a process, not necessarily any one result. We would all be wise to let the process work, and not muck it up any further through misguided “tort reform.”