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Smith v. MHI Injection Molding MacHinery, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 20, 2014

KERRY SMITH and CHERYL SMITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
MHI INJECTION MOLDING MACHINERY, INC., et al., Defendants. MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES AMERICA, INC., et al., Third-Party Plaintiffs,
v.
TRANSNAV TECHNOLOGIES, INC. and SYCAMORE SPECIALIZED CARRIERS, INC., Third-Party Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MILTON I. SHADUR, Senior District Judge.

Third-party defendant Sycamore Specialized Carriers, Inc. ("Sycamore") seeks summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. ("Rule") 56 on the contribution claims against it filed by third-party plaintiffs Casini Warehousing Corporation ("Casini"), Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, Inc. ("Mitsubishi") and MHI Injection Molding Machinery, Inc. ("MHI"). Sycamore's motion is based solely on its argument that it had no duty to plaintiff Kerry Smith ("Smith") to prevent the injuries he sustained (S. Mem. 2, 3 n.2).[1]

As this memorandum opinion and order explains, by ordering Smith to load and tarp such massive equipment as the nearly 15-ton machine at issue in this case, Sycamore undoubtedly undertook a duty to provide reasonable training and equipment to enable Smith to carry out that duty safely. Although that reason - and others outlined below - require the rejection of Sycamore's motion as a matter of law, it should be understood that such denial does not necessarily spell success for its adversaries' claims for contribution.

Summary Judgment Standard

All parties agree that the substantive law governing the case is that of Illinois. But because summary judgment standards are procedural in nature, this Court follows federal procedure even in diversity cases. Casini's references to the Illinois state summary judgment standards (see C. Mem. 6-7) are of course wholly inapposite and will be ignored.

Every Rule 56 movant bears the burden of establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact ( Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). For that purpose courts consider the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to nonmovants and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor ( Lesch v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., 282 F.3d 467, 471 (7th Cir. 2002)). Courts "may not make credibility determinations, weigh the evidence, or decide which inferences to draw from the facts" in resolving motions for summary judgment ( Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2003)).

But a nonmovant must produce more than "a mere scintilla of evidence" to support the position that a genuine issue of material fact exists and "must come forward with specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial" ( Wheeler v. Lawson, 539 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2008)). Ultimately summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmovant ( Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

Factual Background

Smith's claims against Casini, Mitsubishi and MHI arose from his fall that occurred on December 16, 2009 in a warehouse that Casini operated in Bensenville, Illinois (M. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1-3). Smith was a truck driver employed by Sycamore and was at the warehouse to transport an injection molding machine ("Machine") (S. St. ¶ 37).

Both the weight and size of the Machine made its loading for transport a major task - it weighed some 14-1/2 tons and was 20 feet long, more than 8 feet wide and more than 7 feet tall (M. R. S. St. ¶ 36). It had to be lowered via crane onto the trailer of the truck owned and operated by Sycamore (S. St. ¶ 39). According to the bill of lading, before transport the Machine also had to be covered with a tarp (S. St. Ex. D). Smith contends that he asked the crane operator to employ the crane facility to assist in draping the 250-pound tarp over the Machine and that his request was denied (S. St. ¶ 45).[2] In turn, Casini's crane operator (now the company's president) denies that Smith ever asked for such use of the crane (M. R. S. St. ¶ 45).

In any event, Sycamore had not called ahead to ask whether Smith would be able to use the crane to tarp the load after the crane operator had loaded it onto the trailer (M. St. ¶ 13).[3] Nor did Smith call Sycamore for assistance or to explain the situation (S. St. ¶ 48). Instead Smith climbed atop the Machine and began to unroll the tarp (S. St. ¶¶ 50, 51). In the course of doing so, Smith fell from the slick Machine and sustained injuries (S. St. ¶¶ 56-57).

Smith had worked for Sycamore as a truck driver since 2003 (S. St. ¶ 10). He had been trained in tarping loads by senior drivers both at Sycamore and at the trucking company for which he had worked previously (S. St. ¶¶ 16-17). He had regularly transported heavy equipment similar to the Machine in the past (S. St. ¶¶ 11-13). Although Smith said at his deposition that he had never fallen off of a trailer before this incident (C. Mem. ¶ II.A.2), Casini has offered evidence that he had fallen off a trailer in 2004 (C. Mem. ¶ II.A.3).

Sycamore specifically prohibited drivers from tempting fate by standing on their loads (S. St. ¶ 20), and drivers faced disciplinary measures if they violated that policy (S. St. ¶ 22). Instead loads were to be tarped with the aid of a crane, forklift or manlift (S. St. ¶ 25). If drivers had difficulty tarping a load or felt that it was dangerous to do so, they were instructed to call Sycamore for assistance (S. St. ¶ 23). Sycamore did not provide Smith with fall arrest equipment, a ladder, sliding or rolling tarps or a trailer with soft or curtain sides (C. Mem. ¶ II.A.6).

With Smith's Fourth Amended Complaint having named Casini, Mitsubishi and MHI as defendants, each of them brought a claim for contribution against Sycamore under the Illinois Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/1 to 100/5).[4] They allege that Sycamore owes them contribution (in the event of an adverse judgment against them) because any injury suffered by Smith was at least in part proximately caused by Sycamore's having breached a duty "to ensure that Kerry Smith had the knowledge, experience, equipment and ...


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