Claims Arising From Trip on UPS Packages Not Prempted; UPS Not Liable Due to Absence of Duty

In Huertas v. UPS, plaintiff (a TJ Maxx employee) sued United Parcel Service (UPS) for injuries sustained when she tripped and fell over stacked boxes left by UPS. The court awarded summary judgment to defendant and dismissed plaintiff’s complaint.

Plaintiff testified:

I said to the UPS guy, please put the boxes on the counter. We don’t want to have customers fall over them. He said, yeah, yeah, yeah, I will do it, just sign. I said, No, you are going to put them up, right, and he said, Yeah, I’m going to do it. At that point I was going to sign and a customer called my name, Debra Jo, I need assistance. Could you help me. I walked the same way as when I came. I went that same way back because she was in the middle of, like, the third register. …

I had to go on the register so now I was walking down from the end where I was working, the customer in the middle. I think I left her there because that’s where the line was for her to go on and I came around and I tripped over the boxes. I came around in front of the register. I was going to go through the door by the glass door and that’s when I tripped over the boxes.

First, the court held that plaintiff’s claims were not preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act or the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act.  It reasoned:

[T]he facts of this case deal with the manner in which a delivery person stacked packages; it is not related to a “service” governed by the ADA or the FAAAA.

The attempt by UPS to “boot strap” the preemption provisions of the ADA and the FAAAA are misplaced. The plaintiff’s claims here relate to the manner and location where the UPS delivery person stacked boxes in a store. These facts are too remote from any state “regulation” or the “service” provided by an “airline,” notwithstanding the fact that the packages may have come off of an airplane in interstate commerce and then traveled in a motor truck to a store. It was not the intent of Congress to preclude such common law negligence claims when it enacted the ADA or FAAAA.

[P]laintiff claims she was injured as a result of negligent placement of packages. Therefore, the defendant has failed to demonstrate a prima facie entitlement to have plaintiff’s complaint dismissed pursuant to the preemption clauses of the ADA and FAAAA.

Turning to the merits, the court held that UPS had no duty, and hence could not be liable, to plaintiff.  As held by the New York Court of Appeals in Espinal v. Melville Snow Contractors:

[A] breach of a contractual obligation would only give rise to a duty to a third party in three situations: 1) when the contracting party, in failing to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his duties, launches a force or instrument of harm; 2) when the plaintiff detrimentally relies on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties; or 3) when the contracting party has entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely.

In this case, plaintiff could not show that UPS met this standard:

Despite the statement purportedly made by the UPS delivery person, that he would move the packages, UPS had no contractual obligation requiring that it was obligated to place deliveries on the counter behind the registers at TJ Maxx, the plaintiff’s place of employment. In fact, the testimony of Jonathan Bacon, an assistant manager for that store, states that TJ Maxx employees, like the plaintiff, were obligated to ensure that delivered boxes did not create a hazard. Therefore, the plaintiff has failed to raise an issue of fact that would demonstrate a contractual obligation or duty on the part of UPS that would support a different conclusion.

Finally, even assuming that plaintiff “relied upon the voluntary acts of a delivery person to move packages,” UPS still did not owe plaintiff a duty.  The size of the package pile (3 feet by about 5-6 feet) was sufficiently large and thus “may have also constituted an open and obvious obstruction that should have been avoided by reasonable use of the plaintiff’s senses and attention.”

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