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When the Negligent Party is Immune from Liability

What happens in New Hampshire if one of the people at fault for someone’s injuries is “immune” from liability? An “immune” person or business is one that cannot, by law, be sued for negligence under certain circumstances.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court just recently addressed this question in the case of Alfred Ocasio v. Federal Express Corporation in which the plaintiff sued Fed Ex when his leg was crushed by a rolling air can when it was trapped between a Fed Ex truck and a loading dock. The jury awarded the plaintiff $1,445,700.00; however, it found the plaintiff 6% at fault, Fed Ex 4% at fault and an “immune” defendant (USPS) 90% at fault.

One of the decisions that the Court had to make was whether Fed Ex would have to pay anything at all. The judge in the trial court had decided that Fed Ex should pay nothing because the jury assigned a higher percentage of fault to the plaintiff than to Fed Ex. But the NH Supreme Court decided that the trial court was wrong and that the court should have added both defendants’ percentages together to determine whether the plaintiff had met its burden of proof of a preponderance of the evidence. At the same time, though, the Supreme Court refused to make Fed Ex responsible for anything more than the 4% of the total amount awarded, so Fed Ex was to pay only $57,828.00, and USPS had to pay nothing.

Although it is horrible that the plaintiff could not be made whole because USPS could not be held responsible for its negligence, Fed Ex should not be made to pay for losses caused by USPS. The whole idea of tort cases is to hold negligent people and businesses financially accountable. While I disagree with many of the laws protecting certain organizations from liability for their own negligence, those laws exist. Other, non-immune parties should not have the financial burden shifted to them, and they should only be responsible for what they caused. The NH Supreme Court was right, but the question remains as to whether the immunity laws are a good idea at all. Typically, if a negligent party cannot be made to pay for the damages, the costs of those losses are spread to the rest of us when the injured person must seek financial help from municipalities.