Supreme Court adopts Savage rule, finds Celadon not liable for driver injury

In a case of first impression, a split Indiana Supreme Court adopted the Savage rule in finding that Celadon Group was not liable for injuries a truck driver sustained when he opened the doors of a trailer and a load of “used, oily trays” fell on him.

Paul Wilkes was dispatched by his employer, Knight Transportation, to the Celadon warehouse in Columbus to pick up a trailer filled with trays. Cummins Inc. used the molded container trays to house “oily engine parts.”

The Celadon employee loading Wilkes’ trailer had no formal training in how to distribute loads, according to court documents. He just stacked the Cummins containers on top of each other and did not secure them together. Wilkes looked inside the trailer and saw the stacks rising to nearly the top of its 13-foot ceiling.

Then Wilkes closed and locked the doors and drove the load to North Carolina. Along the way, he did not feel the load shift, but when he opened the trailer doors, some of the trays fell and injured him.

Wilkes sued Cummins, Celadon and their affiliated companies. The Marion Superior Court awarded summary judge to Celadon and Cummins on the issue of whether they were negligent in packing, loading and failing to secure the trailer’s cargo. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed and remanded as to Celadon.

The Supreme Court granted transfer and heard oral arguments. However, after the arguments, Celadon Group filed for bankruptcy in Delaware federal court, which caused the Supreme Court to stay the proceedings in the Wilkes case until the bankruptcy court lifted the automatic stay.

When that federal court did grant Wilkes relief from the automatic stay so he could prosecute his claims in Indiana, the Supreme Court lifted the stay.

In deciding the case, the Supreme Court first decided to adopt the “longstanding federal common-law rule” from United States v. Savage Truck Line, Inc., 209 F.2d 442, 445 (4th Cir. 1053). Writing for the majority, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote that the policy and rationale of Savage were well-founded and that the rule is consistent with Indiana law.

Next, the Supreme Court applied the rule to the Wilkes case, and the majority found Celadon was not liable for Wilkes’ injuries.

“Having adopted the Savage rule, we apply it to this record and consider, first, whether Celadon assumed a legal duty of safe loading. We conclude it did,” Slaughter wrote in Paul Michael Wilkes v. Celadon Group, Inc., et al., 19S-CT-564. “Second, we consider whether any alleged defect in loading was latent. On this record, we conclude it was not and should have been apparent to Wilkes through a reasonable inspection.”

The majority noted that when Wilkes looked inside the trailer, he did not see anything “outlandish,” and he did not argue that the lack of securing devices was not apparent. Moreover, the designated evidence showed Wilkes did not ask about the safety or security of the load, and Celadon did not make any assurances about the trays being properly loaded.

“Wilkes had five years’ experience operating commercial motor vehicles when he picked up the trailer at Celadon,” Slaughter wrote. “Despite his lack of experience with these trays or this type of cargo, he did not ask Celadon if the load was secure. … And, in fact, Wilkes admits that no one at Celadon told him the trays were ‘properly loaded.’”

Justice Christopher Goff dissented in part, with Justice Steven David joining.

Specifically, Goff asserted summary judgment was improper because the facts presented along with the “reasonable inferences from them” were sufficient to defeat the grant of summary judgment to Celadon.

“There is no question that Celadon assumed the duty to load the trays which ultimately caused Wilkes’ injury,” Goff wrote. “The issue is whether it breached that duty by loading the trays in a defective manner, thereby causing the injury (or, under the Savage rule, in a defective manner, thereby causing the injury when the defect was latent). Whichever test we apply, I find the designated evidence leaves open a genuine issues of material fact as to this issue.”

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