Court finds for carrier in airborne wheel assembly

An Illinois trucking company was not liable for a trailer wheel assembly that broke free and struck an automobile in Indiana because the plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence — including any expert testimony — that proper care likely would have prevented the accident, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled Tuesday, June 20.

Philip Simonsen, president of Lincolnwood, Ill.-based Jumbo Inc., testified that the trailer, purchased used in 1999, had received a full annual Department of Transportation inspection five weeks before the accident and that the company relies on a third party to inspect, maintain and repair its trailers. The truck driver testified that he had inspected the nuts attaching the wheel unit just a few hours earlier as part of his routine walk-around inspection.

The plaintiff, Chirstine Maroules, argued for damages based on the doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur — Latin for “the thing speaks for itself” — which holds that in some situations an event is so unusual that, absent a reasonable justification, the people in control of the situation should be held responsible. In essence, she claimed that Jumbo should have replaced the wheel studs periodically and prophylactically instead of waiting for them to break or show other signs of failure.

To succeed on the res ipsa loquitur claim, Maroules needed to show that Jumbo Inc. had exclusive control under Indiana law and that the accident is of the type that does not ordinarily happen if those who have the management and control exercise proper care.

The appeals court agreed on the control issue but said that Maroules didn’t provide evidence to support her contention that the accident could reasonably have been prevented. “In other words, it is possible that this type of accident happens randomly even when truck drivers and owners periodically inspect their wheel assemblies and change the wheel studs prophylactically as Maroules argues they should. Our past experience and common knowledge is not sufficient to answer these questions.”

For a link to the appeals court decision and audio from the oral argument in the case, click here.