Loyal followers will remember that just four months ago Legal Lode introduced you to Linda Wachholz, a Wisconsin resident who tried and failed to hold Otto Environmental Systems accountable after she was injured while moving a cart, contrary to manufacturer directions, with its open lid hanging down. When she stepped on the lid, the cart flipped backwards and landed on her.
Since then, seeing more of these cases, I pondered devoting another column. Bin there, done that? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) I am not deterred. Indeed, as a salute to SWANA’s WASTECON to be held later this month in Indianapolis, I report here on a decision from the Hoosier State.
In 2010, Erica DeHeer moved to a five-acre farm not far from Indianapolis. Shortly thereafter, she contacted Ray's Trash Service to start weekly pickups. The company provides its customers with two-wheeled trash and recycle bins bearing a large printed message under the hinged lids: "PLEASE CLOSE LID BEFORE MOVING." For the next year and a half, DeHeer used the bins without incident, always closing the lids before moving them—a “common sense” practice, as she later admitted.
One evening, DeHeer wheeled her bins to the end of her dirt and gravel driveway for collection the next morning. The following day around 7:15 a.m., when she left to drive her son to his high school, she noticed that the trash and recyclables had not yet been collected. On returning about an hour and a half later, she saw the empty bins, lids open, lying on their sides in her driveway. She exited her vehicle and bent down to grab one of the bins by its handle, which was perpendicular to the ground. Without first closing the lid, she attempted to turn the bin upright. When it rolled away from her, she fell forward, hitting her nose and cheek on the plastic inner rim.
She immediately sought treatment at the plastic surgery center where she had undergone a previous cosmetic procedure. Her injuries included a nasal bone fracture and nasal tissue avulsion laceration, wounds to her right cheek and eyelid, and pain in her head and shoulder. She did not notify Ray's about the incident, and continued to use the company for her trash and recycling service for several more months.
Two years later, DeHeer filed a negligence lawsuit against Ray's. When alleging negligence, a plaintiff must establish: (1) that the defendant had a duty to conform its conduct to a standard of care based on its relationship with the plaintiff; (2) that the defendant failed to conform its conduct to that standard of care; and (3) that the breach of duty proximately caused damage to the plaintiff.
Ray's subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment in its favor, claiming that it did not violate any legal obligation to DeHeer, but even if it did so, DeHeer assumed any risk associated with her use of the bins. DeHeer filed an opposition to the motion, and both sides designated uncontested testimony and other evidence in support of their respective positions.
A trial court may grant summary judgment in favor of a party if the evidence shows that no key facts are in dispute and the law is squarely on the side of that party. As this procedural device has the potential for quashing perfectly valid claims, the requesting party bears a considerable burden in demonstrating that a full trial would bring out no relevant facts other than what the litigants already concede to be true.
Following a hearing on the motion and opposition, the judge ruled in favor of Ray's, effectively declaring that DeHeer had failed to meet her burden of proof. On appeal, DeHeer argued that a business supplying an item to be used for the services it provides can be liable for physical harm if the business fails to exercise reasonable care (a) to make the item safe for its intended use or (b) to discover its dangerous condition or character and to inform those whom the business should expect to use it.
Affirming the lower court ruling against DeHeer, the Indiana Court of Appeals outlined the duty owed by a waste services provider to its Indiana customers with respect to wheeled carts:
As a supplier, Ray's had a duty to provide bins reasonably suitable for their intended purpose of holding and transporting trash and recyclables to the curb and back.
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As for the inner rim on which DeHeer struck her face, the clearly printed admonition to close the lid before moving informs the expected user concerning the safest usage of the bin. DeHeer testified that she had made it a habit to always close the lid because it was "common sense" to do so.
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The condition of the rim would have been readily apparent to DeHeer, who for eighteen months had been the primary person responsible for opening and closing the lid to load and transport the bin. In short, the [bin] supplied by Ray's was neither dangerous nor otherwise unsuitable for its intended use.
Perhaps as a last gasp, DeHeer also argued that Ray's breached a duty to ensure that her bins would be left in an upright position after collection. However, she was unable to point to any evidence showing that Ray's owed such a duty or otherwise assumed a duty to do so.
“Even if Ray's had assumed such an expansive duty to ensure that the bins did not tip over during collection, it could not possibly ensure that the bins would remain upright between the time of collection and the time of retrieval by the customer,” the appeals court said. “Simply put, Ray's did not owe DeHeer a duty to ensure that her bins would be upright when she retrieved them.”
DeHeer v. Ray's Trash Service, Inc., 32A01-1512-CT-2313, Ind.App., May 6, 2016.