Last week, the Court of Appeals (Ervin, Hunter, Stroud) published an opinion affirming summary judgment for the defendants in Burnham v. S&L Sawmill, Inc. (COA12-1581). Given the tough facts, it can hardly be described as a surprising decision. The Motion was heard before Judge Evans in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.
Plaintiff was a truck driver for McGee Brothers Company, Inc. His job duties included delivering logs to a sawmill owned by Defendant S&L Sawmill, Inc. (“S&L”). Once there, Plaintiff’s truck would be weighed and the logs sold. After the truck was weighed, Plaintiff would park the truck and remove the binding straps to release the logs. It was his choice where to park the truck, and he was not instructed where to do so by S&L, nor did it generally participate in the dumping of the logs. On April 3, 2008, Plaintiff arrived at the sawmill and had his truck weighed. He then parked his truck and took off the front strap of the load. Nothing happened at this point, but, when he unbound the second strap, it snapped toward him. He dodged the strap but was not able to escape the falling logs. As a result of the incident, Mr. Burnham is now confined to a wheel chair.
The lengthy opinion included discussion of a number of issues, among them: the applicable duty owed by S&L, the non-delegable duty doctrine, and contributory negligence. As to the duty owed by S&L, the Court interpreted Plaintiff’s Complaint and his claims to be based on premises liability. The Court found, however, that there was no evidence establishing that S&L had breached any duty owed to Plaintiff. It appears Plaintiff contended either (a) that S&L had certain affirmative obligations to assist Plaintiff in unloading the logs, or (b) the uneven ground was a defective condition causing the incident. As to the first issue, the Court simply found that there was no such affirmative duty and that the cases to which Plaintiff cited all involved some defective condition on the land. This was in spite of Affidavit evidence that indicated Defendant had the ability to assist with dangerous loads by using a front end loader with a grapple hook. Here, the only arguably defective condition mentioned was the uneven ground, and, according to the Court, there was no evidence in the record indicating that the unevenness of the ground had caused Plaintiff’s injuries. In any event, the Court noted that Plaintiff was just as aware of the uneven ground as Defendant, with the obvious inference that he would have been contributorily negligent even if this condition had caused his injuries.
While the case is largely confined to its own facts and is of little precedential value, it is noteworthy for its discussion of the inherently dangerous/non-delegable duty doctrine. That doctrine, of course, holds broadly that a landowner has a non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace for independent contractors that are engaged in an inherently dangerous activity. The Court decided that doctrine did not apply in this case because Plaintiff was an employee of a seller, not of an independent contractor. He was not there to perform any work on the premises of S&L, only to deliver goods.