A shipper could be held liable in court if a crash is caused by a shift in cargo that the shipper loaded, based on a recent appeals court ruling.

In Spence v. ESAB Group Inc., the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument that federal trucking regulations impose a safety obligation only on the carrier.

Charles Spence, a Houston truck driver, was seriously injured in May 2005 in a rollover accident shortly after picking up a load of welding supplies from the ESAB Group's plant in Hanover, Pa. The cargo - welding supplies manufactured by ESAB - was packaged by ESAB into boxes and cartons, stacked onto pallets, and then stretch wrapped.

Spence sued the company, alleging that ESAB workers assured him that their method of securing the load with metal cleats on each pallet was sufficient, and that it was unnecessary to use the more complicated block-and-brace process that calls for securing each pallet in a wooden frame nailed to the floor of the truck. It was not the first time he had complained to the company about the method of securement.

A unanimous three-judge panel reversed an earlier decision by U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo in Harrisburg, which granted summary judgment in favor of the shipper.

The court held that there was evidence that the shipper undertook not only to load the cargo, but also to supply securement devices and to express an assurance that this method of securing the load was adequate. The court found that if a jury finds that the shipper participated in not only loading, but also securing its welding supplies, then the jury would have to determine whether the shipper exercised due care.

"Those who undertake the task of loading, securing, and hauling cargo on tractor-trailers have a duty to exercise due care to protect property and persons from the risk of harm," U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Vanaskie wrote. "Where there is evidence that a shipper undertook to load and secure the cargo being transported by a third-party carrier, the shipper also bears an obligation to exercise reasonable care."

Read more about the case in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Read the full decision here.