June 11, 2004

Jury finds DC-area mover
not guilty in $7.5mil suit

FAIRFAX, VA – A jury found a Washington D.C. area mover not guilty of negligence in a case brought by a man who was injured during a move. Attorneys for the injured man, who sued for $7.5 million, failed to prove the mover negligent, the defense attorney said.

According to Geoffrey S. Gavett of Gavett and Datt, P.C., Rockville, MD, the suit charged his client’s three-man crew used the wrong equipment to move fully loaded concrete-lined file cabinets. The injury occurred to an employee of the company being moved when one of the cabinets tipped over, Gavett said.

“The injured man testified he lunged for the falling cabinet in an effort to keep it from falling on one of the movers.” said Ed Katz, head of the International Office Moving Institute and a witness in the case. The cabinet fell on the man’s foot resulting in permanent injury. Katz is founder and former owner of Peachtree Movers in Atlanta, GA, which he operated for 24 years before selling in 2000.

The type of extra heavy cabinet involved in the accident is lined with concrete for security reasons and weighs 700 to 800 pounds when full, said Gavett. Such cabinets are approved by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) for storing government documents and are typically called GSA containers, file safes, or fire-proof cabinets. According to Gavett, the plaintiff’s case relied on the testimony of a witness who services such cabinets.

“The customer required a large number of GSA containers to be moved with the contents still inside. One cabinet fell during the dollying-up process,” Katz said. Katz testified in court that the crew used the “shotgun” or “Philadelphia” method to move the cabinets, which depends on one dolly as a cantilever to position the cabinet onto another dolly. “It’s the typical method because it’s the most efficient for the number of cabinets being moved.” The plaintiff charged the method was unsafe and a properly trained crew would have used an appliance truck instead,” Katz said.

“Mr. Katz was particularly effective in demonstrating to the jury why the method of moving file safes offered by plaintiffs (use of an appliance dolly) was potentially more dangerous than the method [my client] employed. Mr. Katz was also convincing in establishing that the “shotgun” or “Philadelphia” method used by [my client] represented the virtually uniform standard in the commercial moving industry of relocating file safes when they are full,” Gavett said. The court’s decision was returned May 26.

According to Katz, GSA cabinets are inherently dangerous to handle. No methods available are a hundred percent safe, Gavett said.

“Both the appliance hand truck method and the “shotgun” or “Philadelphia” method have their own unique inherent risks, however, in moving large volume, definitely using the “shotgun” method is the most practical,” Katz said. “In fact, the appliance hand truck would only have application in moving a few cabinets, because it’s cumbersome, awkward, and slow.”

According to Katz, the injured man alleged the movers were either not trained or not fully trained. “The plaintiff claimed the cabinet fell because the crew tried to move it too fast,” Katz said. “It was in a hot facility and their hands were sweaty. The cabinets are very dangerous to move. The crew did what all movers would do. When the cabinet started to fall, they scattered to avoid being hurt. They’re trained that no piece of furniture is more important than personal injury.”

The crew consisted of an experienced supervisor and two movers who had been trained prior to working in the field, said Katz. “A formal ongoing training program helped their case. They don’t rely solely on OJT (on-the-job training).”

According to Gavett, the case was decided on the strength of expert testimony. “Ed (Katz) could testify on what commercial office movers do because he is one. He’s clearly qualified and can articulate it. He had the proper credentials to address the issue. Mr. Katz’s performance on the stand was as close to flawless as possible. Cross-examination … was completely ineffective,” said Gavett. “The jury agreed and concluded it’s reasonable to judge on what’s typical within the industry. In an industry without a lot of standards, Ed’s sincere and systematic approach to safety and effectiveness connected with the jury. The court gave Ed Katz permission to use models to demonstrate what happened. You could tell that this approach connected with the jury. He did his homework.”

An Ounce of Prevention Avoiding Lawsuits

Some commonsense actions may help you avoid negligence lawsuits. As always in legal matters, seek the advice of a qualified professional.

First, for every job you do, rank priorities and inform employees and the customer. Here is how you should rank them:

Top Priority
No one gets hurt. Don’t take a shortcut just to save time. Very often, shortcuts lead to injuries.

2nd Priority
Protect your cargo and the buildings you’re moving from and to. Handle and transport the customer’s furniture and contents safely. Lay down extensive building surface protection.

Last Priority
Let your crews know that finishing the job on time should be their third and last priority.

• See that everyone on your move crew receives the same training in proper techniques. Avoid injuries to employees and customers and steer clear of lawsuits by taking a critical look at your ongoing training program. If your company does not already have a formal training curriculum, then establish one. Putting uniforms on laborers and sending them out on jobs without training will eventually blow up in your face. If you’re proven negligent in court, your per-pound coverage goes out the window and liability can become unlimited.

The courts tend to look more favorably upon companies with training programs.

“If you’re sued, the first thing that happens is called ‘discovery.’ That’s when employee personnel folders are examined and evidence of training certification will be your first line of defense,” said Tom Hoyt, president of The Quarles Group in Marietta, GA, one of the leading insurance agencies specializing in insuring moving companies in the U.S.

Movers & Furniture Dealers
• Issue Warning – Include instructions in your Order For Service that customer employees should be warned to stay clear of and, under no circumstances, touch any furniture while its being moved.

Project Managers & Construction Companies
• Never specify in writing how furniture will be moved. Declaring the move method makes you contingently liable should an accident occur.

Building Managers
• Demand that tenants hire only trained movers. If a tenant is hurt and if the moving company is not adequately insured, the courts may find the property owner liable for allowing the mover into their building.

Companies Planning A Move
• Morale of the story? Don’t throw yourself in harms way to save a piece of falling furniture.