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Allen v. Schneider Logistics, Inc.

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

May 12, 2014

WILLIAM ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHNEIDER LOGISTICS, INC., and WAL-MART STORES, INC., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ROBERT M. DOW, Jr., District Judge.

Plaintiff William Allen sued Schneider Logistics and Wal-Mart, alleging that Defendants' negligence caused the injuries that he suffered on the job as a freight handler at a Wal-Mart distribution center that Schneider Logistics managed and operated. Wal-Mart settled with Plaintiff, (see [52]), but Schneider Logistics, arguing that it owed no duty to Allen, now moves for summary judgment [72]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Schneider Logistics's motion.

I. Background[1]

Wal-Mart Stores East, LP ("Wal-Mart") operates a regional distribution network for general merchandise that includes a distribution facility that it owns in Elwood, Illinois. Def. SOF ¶¶ 1, 8. Relevant here, on April 1, 2006, Wal-Mart and Schneider Logistics ("Schneider") entered into a contract, by which Schneider "agree[d] to oversee and manage certain day-to-day operations, including but not limited to, receiving, handling, and shipping of goods, at [Wal-Mart's Elwood, Illinois distribution facility]." Pl. SOF ¶¶ 2-3. Wal-Mart manufactured products overseas, typically shipped them in 20-foot or 40-foot long containers to the United States, and then transported the containers by truck to its distribution centers, such as its Elwood facility. Def. SOF ¶¶ 7-9. The Wal-Mart/Schneider contract tasked Schneider with unloading the containers once they arrived at the facility and then preparing the goods for transport to their next Wal-Mart destination. Def. SOF ¶¶ 23-24. Schneider, however, outsourced the physical unloading of the containers to Plaintiff's employer, Progressive Logistic Services ("Progressive"), which performed its work at Schneider's direction. Def. SOF ¶ 25; Pl. SOF ¶ 20.

In February 2011, at the time of Plaintiff's accident, Schneider's general manager, Jonathan Starr, and thirteen other operations managers, were responsible for all aspects of operating the Elwood facility. Pl. SOF ¶¶ 8, 10. Wal-Mart typically purchased the physical equipment (forklifts, pallets, jacks, etc.) necessary to operate the facility, but usually after discussing these needs with Schneider. Pl. SOF Def. SOF ¶ 7; Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 2-3. Just one Wal-Mart employee, Michelle Veneable, worked at the Elwood facility, and she had no safety or oversight responsibilities. Pl. SOF ¶ 6.

Responsible only for overseeing the facility's logistics and operations, Schneider had no input or involvement regarding the contents of the containers that arrived on trucks at the facility or the way in which the containers were filled. Def. SOF ¶ 11. Wal-Mart's overseas manufacturers packed the containers, and, for obvious economic reasons, Wal-Mart expected that these containers would be filled to maximum capacity. Def. SOF ¶¶ 5-6. When a delivery arrived at the Elwood facility, a driver would back the truck's chassis up to the loading dock until it made contact with the dock's rubber bumpers. Def. SOF ¶12. When the truck was flush with the bumpers, a gap existed between the rest of the truck and the building, the size of which was dictated by the size of the bumpers. Def. SOF ¶14. The parties agree that this gap was typically between 4 and 7 inches at the Elwood facility. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 27. So that a truck can be safely unloaded, a dock plate - which effectively acts as a bridge - is used to fill that gap and connect the loading dock and the container. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 14. But when a container is too full, a dock plate cannot be deployed. Def. SOF ¶18; Pl. SOF ¶15. Because Wal-Mart's trucks were usually filled to capacity, this was often (if not always) the case when a container arrived for unloading at the Elwood facility. Def. SOF ¶17. In fully-packed containers, only 4-6 inches[2] separated the boxed cargo and the end of the container deck. Def. SOF ¶17.

Defendant contends, though Plaintiff disputes, that the standard industry practice for unloading a fully-packed container dictates that an unloader (such as Allen) is to stand on the undeployed dock plate and, without stepping across the gap into the container itself, remove enough product from the container so that the dock plate can be safely deployed before unloading the remainder of the cargo. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶¶ 20-21. For that reason, Defendants argue, the gap between the dock and the container does not pose a safety hazard to an unloader. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 19. Plaintiff disagrees. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 19.

As an unloader for Progressive at the Elwood facility, Plaintiff was, of course, aware that every container had some gap between the dock and the rear of the truck. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 35. He also knew that a dock plate could not be deployed when an arriving container was full, as was almost always the case. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 36. The parties agree that, prior to the accident at the heart of this lawsuit, "Plaintiff would be as careful as he could until he could get the dock plate deployed." Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 36.

On, February 11, 2011, Plaintiff opened the dock door to unload a container. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 38. Because the container was too full to deploy the dock plate, Plaintiff and a colleague began unloading the first wall of boxes, where each box was roughly 2.5-3 feet wide, 2 feet tall, and 2 feet deep. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶ 39. After removing several boxes, Plaintiff stepped onto the container from the dock, grabbed a box with both hands, rested his chin on top of the box, and turned to his left to step off the container. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶¶ 40-42. Plaintiff knew that the gap existed, but - focused on the task at hand and with the box obstructing his view - accidentally stepped into the gap with his left foot, resulting in the injuries for which he now seeks to hold Schneider liable. Pl. Resp. to Def. SOF ¶¶ 43-44.

Plaintiff contends that prior to his accident he had "made numerous complaints to [Schneider] employees, including... a superintendent, especially about the safety of the trucks being loaded too far to the rear of the containers so that the dock plate could not be deployed." Pl. SOF ¶ 22. In fact, Plaintiff maintains that he complained to Schneider "each time that they could not get the dock plate to deploy." Pl. SOF ¶ 23. In response, he alleges, Schneider employees told him that "that's the way it is" and to "[d]o your job as safely as you can." Pl. SOF ¶ 24. Plaintiff agrees that Schneider personnel "reinforced to all employees that they should be safe in their practices" and "aware of their surroundings while at the facility." Pl. SOF ¶ 25. But Plaintiff also points out that Schneider's own safety handbook states that "dock plates must be in place before trucks are loaded or unloaded." Pl. SOF ¶ 30. And he argues that a "dock board"[3] - essentially a portable version of a dock plate - can be used to bridge a gap between the dock and the container in situations where a dock plate cannot be deployed. Pl. SOF ¶ 27. Dock boards, however, were never used at the Elwood facility. Pl. SOF ¶ 28.

Plaintiff sued Wal-Mart and Schneider in the Circuit Court of Cook County on September 14, 2011, alleging that Defendants' negligence - specifically, Defendants' failure to provide a dock plate or a safe alternative - caused Plaintiff to be injured by the gap between the truck and the loading dock. Wal-Mart settled with Plaintiff on February 26, 2013, and, following non-medical fact discovery, Schneider filed the summary judgment motion [72] at issue here.

II. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is proper if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To avoid summary judgment, the opposing party must go beyond the pleadings and "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986) (quotation omitted). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing the lack of any genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Summary judgment is proper against "a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322. The party opposing summary judgment "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. ...


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