Postal Customers Gain Right to Sue for Tripping Over Mail

February 23, 2006

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Postal Service can be sued by a woman who tripped over mail left on her porch.

The 7-1 decision revived a 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 M. 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.”

Justices had been asked to interpret a federal law that bars lawsuits over the “loss, miscarriage or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter.” The court said the law did not cover Dolan’s claim.

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.

Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the government. In a lone dissent, he said that personal injury lawsuits resulting from mail delivery should be prohibited.

Thomas said that under the law, the post office cannot be sued if a carrier negligently drops a package of glassware, and if the customer is cut by the shattered glass. It makes no sense, he said, for the court to allow that same customer to sue if he trips on the package.

“There is no basis in the text (of the law) for the line drawn,” he wrote.

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