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February 23 2006 - Supreme Court rules against Post Office

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Postal Service is not immune from lawsuits by people who tumble over mail left in their doorways.

In a 7-1 decision, the panel said a Pennsylvania woman could continue her lawsuit blaming the post office when she tripped over packages and letters left on her porch in 2001. The woman wants the U.S. Postal Service to pick up the tab for injuries in the fall.

But the federal government argued that the Postal Service was immune from lawsuits under a federal statute blocking suits involving the "loss, miscarriage or negligent transmission of letters."

Writing for a majority of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the federal law was only intended to cover losses from mail that is misdirected, lost or damaged en route.
"Congress did not intend to immunize all postal activities," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy noted that in a 1984 case, the Supreme Court said the Postal Service could be held liable for accidents involving its delivery trucks. Placing mail in a way that creates a risk of accidents is no different, Kennedy wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter in the case. Newly installed Justice Samuel Alito did not participate.

Government lawyers had implored the Supreme Court not to allow the Pennsylvania woman's suit to go forward because, they said, it would open the floodgates for slip-and-fall claims that would be hard to disprove.

At risk, the government said, was the efficiency of the entire mail system. Every day, the U.S. Postal Service delivers roughly 660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million mailboxes, doorsteps and other drop-offs.

Mail carriers often have to place packages on front porches or at doorsteps because they won't fit through mail slots or in boxes, Assistant Solicitor General Patricia Millett told the court during oral arguments in November. Millett argued the Postal Service was defenseless against slip-and-fall lawsuits, which can be filed long after someone trips over a package without any witnesses.

Gerry McKiernan, spokesman for the Postal Service, said that in the wake of the decision, carriers would receive a refresher course on delivery protocols.
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