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Hey, postman! Watch where you deliver

You might think, 230 years into our history as a nation, that the courts would long ago have decided such a basic issue as this one: can you sue the post office if you slip and fall on mail left on your front porch? But that question wasn't finally answered until today, when the U.S. Supreme Court said, yes, you can.

The court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania woman, Barbara Dolan, who tripped over packages left on her porch instead of where her mail was normally dropped off. The fall resulted in serious injury to her wrists and back, so she sued the U.S. Postal Service.


Federal law allows some lawsuits against the federal government, but there are exceptions, and the Postal Service argued that Mrs. Dolan's was blocked by one of them -- barring claims due to the "loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter." After all, the government said, the Postal Service delivers 660 million pieces a day to 142 million addresses and shouldn't be sued whenever a postal customer trips on some of it.

Not so, the court concluded today. That section of the law, the justices said, blocks lawsuits dealing only with a failure to deliver the mail on time, in good condition, and to the right address. Just as the Postal Service can be sued when its delivery trucks cause a traffic accident, so it can be sued in a case like this, the justices ruled.

The court voted 7-1 in favor of Mrs. Dolan. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, finding that the law blocks lawsuits in a case like this. And the newest justice, Samuel Alito, was not on the court when the case was argued in November and took no part in the decision.

The Postal Service says that it is taking two actions as a result of today's decision:

-- all letter carriers will be reminded of Postal Service policy requiring them to leave packages "in a safe place;"
-- the policy of leaving packages when customers are not home will now be reviewed.

However, a postal official says that, at this point, it is considered unlikely that the review will result in any change in the policy.