Products Liability Law Daily $3.4M judgment against crane manufacturer affirmed in failure to warn case
Monday, August 6, 2018

$3.4M judgment against crane manufacturer affirmed in failure to warn case

By Miriam A. Friedman, J.D.

In an action stemming from a crane tip-over accident in which the crane operator sustained serious injuries, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the crane manufacturer was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on a failure to warn claim brought by the operator’s wife. Furthermore, the panel determined that the trial court had not abused its discretion in qualifying the wife’s expert, admitting evidence of other accidents, or curtailing the manufacturer’s attempts to demonstrate the crane operator’s prior conduct through its own witness. Therefore, the district court’s $3.4 million judgment in favor of the wife was affirmed (Williams v. Manitowoc Cranes, LLC , August 3, 2018, Willett, D.).

The certified crane operator, who worked at the VT Halter Marine shipyard, was operating a Manitowoc Model 16000 Series crawler crane—which has a counterweight tray on its rear—while participating in a "tandem lift" involving multiple cranes. Unexpectedly, the cranes began to separate from one another, causing the operator’s crane to tip. At least one of the counterweights stacked in the rear of the crane slid forward, striking the operator’s cab and causing him to experience an "eight-foot, head-first fall onto concrete." Although the operator survived, his physical and mental capacities were permanently impaired.

The crane operator’s wife sued Manitowoc Cranes, LLC individually and as her husband’s conservator. She raised claims for failure to warn, defective design, and negligence under the Mississippi Products Liability Act and also brought a loss of consortium claim. The district court granted partial summary judgment for the manufacturer and dismissed the design defect claims with prejudice. The defective warning and loss of consortium claims proceeded to trial, and, ultimately, a jury ruled for the wife, finding that the manufacturer had failed to warn her husband about the falling counterweights. The jury awarded $7 million in economic damages and $1 million in non-economic damages, as well as $500,000 for the loss of consortium claim. However, pursuant to the jury’s finding of contributory negligence, the district court entered a final judgment against the manufacturer for a total judgment of $3.4 million, plus post-judgment interest. The manufacturer filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial. The district court denied these motions, and the manufacturer appealed.

Failure to warn claim. The appellate court found that the jury had an adequate basis for finding the manufacturer’s warning inadequate, that is, "that a reasonably prudent person would have informed crane operators about the unique danger posed by falling counterweights." As such, the court could not conclude as a matter of law that the manufacturer had adequately warned the operator about the falling counterweight danger. The court also noted that the jury could have found the manufacturer’s "purported compliance with industry standards" insufficient to render the warning adequate.

With regard to causation, the appellate court noted that the wife had rebutted "misuse" arguments by citing testimony and evidence that the jury heard before reaching a verdict. Moreover, the court found that this record evidence did support a finding that the manufacturer could reasonably foresee any alleged misuse. As such, the district court did not err in denying the manufacturer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on this point.

Finally, the appellate court found that the jury had an adequate basis for finding that an alternative warning could have "communicated valuable additional information about the falling counterweight danger." Notwithstanding any reservations the court may have had about the warning, it felt compelled to assume that the jury had considered all relevant issues in evaluating whether an alternative warning would have "reduced the likelihood of [the operator] severely injuring himself during the tip-over." Thus, the court could not decide, as a matter of law, that any such alternative warning would have been ineffective.

Qualification of expert. Moving on to challenges of abuse of discretion, the appellate court found that the district court did not manifestly err by qualifying the wife’s expert witness as a "warnings expert." First, sufficient evidence supported this ruling. In addition, the manufacturer failed to cite any Fifth Circuit case holding that a district court had abused its discretion "by qualifying someone as an expert on the basis of an imprecise match between the expert’s qualifications and the issue she planned to testify about." As long as there were "sufficient indicia" that a witness would "provide a reliable opinion" on a subject, a district court had the authority to qualify the witness as an expert. Finally, the appellate panel pointed out that any "quibbles" regarding the expert’s qualifications "should be fought with the conventional weapons of cross-examination and competing testimony—not the nuclear option of exclusion."

Admissibility of other accidents. The appellate court also found that the district court did not err by admitting evidence about other crane accidents involving similar circumstances and a similarly designed crane. The panel agreed with the trial court’s determination that this evidence was relevant to determining what the manufacturer "knew, or in light of reasonably available information should have known" about the danger that allegedly caused the injuries. Furthermore, even had the district court abused its discretion, the manufacturer had not met its burden of demonstrating that such error was prejudicial.

Crane operator’s prior conduct. Finally, the appellate court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in sustaining an objection to the manufacturer’s attempt to elicit character evidence about the operator during the direct examination of its own witness. As required by the relevant rule, the appeals court explained, the district court had permitted the manufacturer to cross-examine a witness about specific instances of the operator’s character "as a by-the-book operator." Furthermore, the manufacturer did not demonstrate any prejudicial impact of the alleged error. In fact, the court noted, despite evidence presented by the manufacturer that the operator’s crane was overloaded at the time of the accident and that he had misused the crane, the jury nonetheless found in his favor.

The case is No. 17-60458.

Attorneys: Desmond V. Tobias (Tobias, McCormick & Comer, LLC) for Wanda Williams. Keith Wade McDaniel (McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch LLC) for Manitowoc Cranes LLC.

Companies: Manitowoc Cranes LLC

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