By David Yucht, J.D.
Although a manufacturer does not have an independent duty to test its products, the duty to test is part of a manufacturer’s duty not to act negligently.
A federal judge in Virginia refused to grant a new trial or issue a judgment as a matter of law for a manufacturer whose shipping container failed, resulting in a worker’s fatal fall. A jury verdict of $4 million in favor of the worker’s estate on its negligent design and failure to warn claims against the manufacturer was undisturbed by the court (Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp., March 13, 2020, Gibney, J.).
Overhead Doors Corp. manufactured commercial garage doors. Overhead also designed and manufactured the cardboard packaging containers in which these doors were shipped. A tech trainee had been working for a garage door distributor for five days. While up on a truck extension ladder, he attempted to move a new garage door off the truck by grabbing a handhold on the packaging. When he pulled on the handhold, a slat separated from the packaging, causing him to fall off the truck and sustain fatal injuries. His estate sued the manufacturer, alleging negligent design and failure to warn. A jury awarded the estate $4 million. The manufacturer moved for a new trial and for judgment as a matter of law.
Duty to test—jury instructions. The court was not convinced to grant a new trial based on the manufacturer’s argument that the court mistakenly instructed the jury regarding a manufacturer’s duty to test a product. The estate contended that the manufacturer acted negligently, in part, because it failed to test the shipping container. The jury was instructed that a manufacturer has a duty to make reasonably necessary tests to ensure that its products are safe for their intended or foreseeable use. The manufacturer argued that these instructions mistakenly suggested that there was an "independent duty to conduct testing." The court found that its instructions correctly reflected that the duty to test is included in a manufacturer’s duty to avoid negligence.
Failure to warn—jury instructions. The court also found that it properly instructed the jury on the failure to warn claim. The manufacturer asserted that it was entitled to a new trial because the court did not tell the jury that the estate had to prove that the decedent would have "heeded" the warnings if they had been provided. Because the instructions enabled the manufacturer to argue the facts based on the correct legal standard, the court denied the request for a new trial due to a failure to provide a "heeding" instruction.
Under Virginia law, a manufacturer’s duty to warn of its product’s dangers is based on a "reason to know" standard and not the broader "should have known" standard. The manufacturer argued that a new trial was warranted because the court declined to adopt its proposed instruction and, in a response to a jury question, conflated the two different standards. The court found that the manufacturer failed to show that the decision not to define "reason to know" "seriously impaired" its ability to argue its case. Here, the court charged the appropriate standard, and the court’s use of the term "should have known" when answering the jury question did not negate the correct instructions governing the jury’s decision.
As to the motion for judgment, the court found that the estate had proved its failure to warn claim. The court referred to the testimony of a corporate representative who stated that he had never considered the potential dangers of packaging and was not familiar with industry standards. Moreover, he testified that the manufacturer did not train its employees about related dangers. Concerning how much force the packaging hand holds could withstand, he testified that "[w]e felt like that was tested with our cardboard ends." The containers were not tested in a systematic way. It was reasonable to conclude that the manufacturer chose to "bury its head in the sand" and purposely remain ignorant of risks and, consequently, had reason to know of the risks but failed to warn.
Evidentiary issues. The manufacturer argued that the court incorrectly excluded evidence of the decedent’s employer’s safety manual to show that the decedent’s activity prior to his fatal accident did not conform to his employer’s standards. The court upheld its earlier decision noting that Virginia law did not permit the introduction of a company’s private rules to prove a standard of care. Additionally, the manufacturer objected to the ability of the estate to elicit testimony concerning the lengths of the nails in the subject packaging because the nail length was a technical issue that required expert testimony, which was not provided. However, the court noted that the manufacturer never objected to this testimony at trial.
Regarding the motion for judgment, the court was not swayed by the manufacturer’s assertion that the estate’s case should have failed because it did not produce the subject container. The manufacturer argued that the estate did not eliminate other reasonable possible causes of the accident and failed to show the container was in substantially the same condition as it was at the time it left the manufacturer’s control. However, the estate’s expert reviewed photographs of the container as it appeared shortly after the incident and testified that it failed to comply with industry standards.
Design defect. The court found that the manufacturer was not entitled to judgment on the estate’s design defect claims. The court found that the estate established a defective design with the testimony of its expert witness, who testified that the packaging container was missing "end cleats" as industry standards required and that the container would have held up if it had those end cleats.
Assumption of risk defense—contributory negligence. The court upheld its decision to strike the manufacturer’s assumption of the risk defense. The evidence here demonstrated that the manufacturer intended that the packaging material was to be handled the way that the decedent used it. It was reasonable for a user of the container to expect that the slat could be pulled on the way that the decedent pulled on it.
The court also determined, in response to the manufacturer’s motion for judgment, that contributory negligence did not invalidate the jury’s verdict. In Virginia, contributory negligence applies when a person fails to act "as a reasonable person would have acted for his own safety under the circumstances." Contributory negligence is a question for a jury to decide.
The parties presented conflicting evidence that the decedent contributed to his own death. The jury found that he did not. Because reasonable minds could differ on this issue, the court denied the manufacturer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.
The case is No. 3:17-cv-00818-JAG.
Attorneys: Peter Christopher Grenier (Grenier Law Group PLLC) for Andrea Sardis. Martin Andrew Conn (Moran Reeves & Conn PC) for Overhead Door Corp.
Companies: Overhead Door Corp.
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