Feb. 23, 2006, 1:41AM
Postal Service can be sued by woman who tripped on mail
By GINA HOLLAND Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Postal Service can be sued by a woman who tripped over mail left on her porch.
The 7-1 decision revived a Pennsylvania woman's claim that she was entitled to damages after suffering wrist and back injuries during the 2001 fall at her home in suburban Philadelphia. The letters, packages and periodicals were put on Barbara Dolan's porch instead of in her mailbox.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, dismissed government concerns of costly litigation.
"The government raises the specter of frivolous slip-and-fall claims inundating the Postal Service," he wrote.
"Slip-and-fall liability, however is a risk shared by any business that makes home deliveries."
Gerry McKiernan, spokesman for the Postal Service, said carriers would receive a "refresher course" on delivery protocols and that policies would be reviewed.
The Bush administration had told justices last fall that the Postal Service delivers about 660 million pieces of mail each day and would have a hard time disproving complaints about accidents.
In a lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the government.
The case is Dolan v. United States Postal Service, 04-848.
Justices Allow Personal-Injury Suits Against Postal Service
By Charles Lane Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, February 23, 2006; Page A07
The Supreme Court has a message for the U.S. Postal Service: Be careful where letter carriers put their letters and packages, because if somebody slips on them and gets hurt, you might get taken to court.
In a 7 to 1 decision yesterday, the court said that the Postal Service is subject to personal-injury lawsuits by its customers, ruling that federal law does not immunize the service against claims by those who say they were hurt by negligent delivery of the mail.
The court said that Barbara Dolan, a Pennsylvania woman who said she was injured when she tripped and fell over mail left on her porch, can proceed with a suit against the Postal Service that had previously been dismissed by a federal district judge and the Philadelphia-based federal appeals court.
In the court's opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy brushed aside the government's concerns that a ruling for Dolan would open the door to frivolous slip-and-fall claims.
He wrote that the lower courts had misinterpreted a federal law that gives the Postal Service immunity from some tort claims. Congress intended only to protect the Postal Service against lawsuits that arise from delivering the mail late or in damaged condition, Kennedy wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented; Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not participate. The case is Dolan v. U.S. Postal Service , No. 04-848.
Justices Curb Postal Service's Immunity From Lawsuits
Article Tools Sponsored By By LINDA GREENHOUSE Published: February 23, 2006
WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 The Postal Service may be sued by people who trip over packages or other mail that letter carriers have carelessly left in their path, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. Skip to next paragraph
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The 7-to-1 decision rejected the government's argument that the service, which delivers some 660 million pieces of mail a day, is immune from lawsuits for negligent delivery. The ruling permits a woman who tripped and fell over packages left on the porch of her suburban Philadelphia home to proceed with her suit for $200,000 in damages for serious injuries to her wrists, chest and spine.
The suit, brought by Barbara Dolan, was dismissed by two lower federal courts in Pennsylvania under what is known as the "postal exception" to the federal law that generally permits negligence suits against the government.
That law, the Federal Tort Claims Act, waives the government's sovereign immunity from suits in circumstances under which a private individual would face liability. The postal exception, one of 13 specific exemptions to the law, bars "any claim arising out of the loss, miscarriage or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter." The question in this case, Dolan v. United States Postal Service, No. 04-848, was how broadly to read the exemption.
The outcome turned on the phrase "negligent transmission," or, more specifically, on the single word "transmission." If transmitting mail meant the same as delivering mail, as the government argued and the lower courts held, then negligent mail delivery would be covered by the exemption and could not give rise to a lawsuit.
Transmission of mail "includes the ultimate act of delivering mail to a postal customer," the government argued in its Supreme Court brief, adding that Congress had intended the postal exception to insulate the Postal Service from lawsuits for its "performance of the quintessentially postal function of directly delivering the mail to a postal patron."
But in his opinion for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy took a different approach. Citing the maxim that "a word is known by the company it keeps," he said that "transmission" had to be understood in the context of the exception's other words, "loss" and "miscarriage."
"Mail is 'lost' if it is destroyed or misplaced and 'miscarried' if it goes to the wrong address," Justice Kennedy said. He added: "Since both those terms refer to failings in the postal obligation to deliver mail in a timely manner to the right address, it would be odd if 'negligent transmission' swept far more broadly to include injuries like those alleged here injuries that happen to be caused by postal employees but involve neither failure to transmit mail nor damage to its contents."
Consequently, Justice Kennedy said, "we think it more likely" that Congress meant to immunize the Postal Service only for injuries caused when mail arrives late, damaged or at the wrong address, or does not arrive at all.
He said the "specter of frivolous slip-and-fall claims inundating the Postal Service," a prospect that the government had raised in its brief, could be dealt with by applying "ordinary protections against frivolous litigation." He noted that Congress had not immunized the Postal Service against suits from negligent handling of its delivery trucks, a potential liability that poses the same risks of frivolous litigation, and also pointed out that this type of liability was "a risk shared by any business that makes home deliveries."
This last point was stressed in a brief filed on Mrs. Dolan's behalf by the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-business group, which told the court that the Postal Service "should not operate at a competitive advantage over private carriers." The legal foundation, which more often takes the government's side in Supreme Court cases, said it was "in the public interest to hold the Postal Service accountable for its negligent acts to the same extent that private carriers would be liable," except for the limited exceptions specified by Congress.
The only dissenting vote was cast by Justice Clarence Thomas, who said that "the crux of my disagreement with the majority is its failure to assign the term 'transmission' its plain meaning." Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not vote, because he was not on the court when the case was argued on Nov. 7.
Whether the Postal Service was in fact negligent for the way it left packages on Mrs. Dolan's porch has not yet been resolved, because the case has not gone to trial.
The Supreme Court agreed to decide this case because the question had produced conflicting answers in the lower courts. In 2004, the federal appeals court in New York decided a nearly identical case, in which a woman sued after tripping on a package left outside her door. That court held that the case was not covered by the postal exception and could proceed.