Justices Allow Personal-Injury Suits Against Postal Service

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

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.

Separately, the court voted unanimously to make it easier for women to sue small businesses for sexual harassment.

Federal job-discrimination law does not apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees. Jenifer Arbaugh sued her boss at New Orleans's Moonlight Cafe for sexual harassment, and won a two-week jury trial. But after the trial, the employer moved to throw out the verdict on the grounds that it had fewer than 15 employees. A federal district judge agreed to dismiss the case, and a New Orleans-based federal appeals court affirmed the ruling.

But in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court ruled that, when it set the 15-employee limit, Congress did not intend to authorize such defense motions. Instead, the court ruled, it should be up to a jury, not a judge, to decide whether a given company is covered by the law.

Alito also did not participate in that case, Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp. , No. 04-944.

In a second civil rights case, the court unanimously rebuffed an African American entrepreneur's effort to expand civil rights protections for minority contractors, ruling that he could not sue Domino's Pizza for allegedly violating his right to make and enforce business agreements.

John W. McDonald's one-man company, JWM Investments, had agreed to build four stores for Domino's in the Las Vegas area. But the deal fell apart after the construction of the first store, with Domino's alleging that JWM failed to do what it promised and McDonald alleging that Domino's discriminated against his firm because of his race.

JWM Investments and Domino's settled their dispute, but McDonald filed a separate personal suit against the pizza chain, asserting that it had violated his rights under a federal law first passed in 1866 to help newly freed slaves participate in the economy on an equal footing with whites.

The San Francisco-based federal appeals court upheld the suit, but the Supreme Court struck it down. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that McDonald's suit could not go forward because only JWM, not McDonald, had any rights under the contractual relationship with Domino's.

The case is Domino's v. McDonald , No. 04-593.

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