Products Liability Law Daily Causation issues preclude judgment favoring safety harness maker in user’s fall-related lawsuit
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Monday, June 4, 2018

Causation issues preclude judgment favoring safety harness maker in user’s fall-related lawsuit

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

An individual who sustained severe personal injury when he fell from a tree despite using a safety harness produced sufficient evidence to suggest that the harness maker’s negligence was a proximate cause of his injuries, a Pennsylvania appellate panel ruled, reversing and remanding a state trial court’s grant of summary judgment favoring the manufacturer. Although the injured man apparently was wearing the at-issue harness backwards when he fell, it was error for the trial court to rule that the injured man’s misuse of the harness was the sole cause of the accident and that the alleged design defect did not contribute to it, the panel held (Zimmerman v. Alexander Andrew, Inc., June 1, 2018, Bowes, M.).

While attempting to cut down a dead tree for a friend, a man used a safety harness provided by the friend that neither had used before. The harness itself had a warning label and its package contained an instruction sheet, but believing that the device’s use was self-explanatory, the man did not read either thoroughly before putting on the device backwards such that the back D-ring (primary support) was on his chest. He climbed the tree and strapped himself to it using the D-rings on either side of the harness rather than the D-ring intended to be on his back. The wind began blowing and the man attempted to change position, causing his full weight to be borne by the harness. The harness failed and he fell 35 feet to the ground, suffering numerous fractured bones, a collapsed lung, and an eventual amputation of his right leg below the knee.

The injured man filed suit against the harness maker, alleging causes of action for strict products liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. With respect to the products liability claim, he contended that: (1) the harness had been sold with component parts that were of insufficient strength and durability; (2) the harness had been designed and manufactured with weak and faulty component parts, making it unreasonably dangerous; (3) the harness had been distributed and sold with inadequate warnings regarding the use and maintenance of it and the hazards associated with its proper use; and (4) the harness was not stable enough for routine and regular use. The man made similar allegations to support his negligence claim, couched in terms of the manufacturer’s failure to use reasonable care. The harness maker responded by asserting the affirmative defenses of misuse of the product and comparative negligence.

Following discovery, the harness maker moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the company’s motion, concluding that there was nothing that would make a manufacturer think that someone would use the at-issue product as the injured man had used it, and that it would be a waste of time to take the case to the jury because the jury would have to find in the harness maker’s favor if they followed the court’s instructions as to the law. The man appealed the trial court’s decision, challenging its determination that his use of the harness had been an unforeseeable misuse, that he should have been able to discern from the incomplete user instructions that he was not using the harness properly, that no jury could find that he had acted as a reasonable/prudent person under the circumstances, and that no jury could find in his favor based on the evidence of record.

Misuse. Relevant case precedent instructs that a plaintiff’s misuse of a product cannot be grounds for granting summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer under a design-defect theory unless it is established that the misuse solely caused the accident and that the alleged design defect did not contribute to the accident. According to the injured man, he had been using the harness in a foreseeable application consistent with its intended use (i.e., to stop someone working above ground from falling) and the manufacturer failed to establish that any misuse of the harness by him had been the sole cause of the accident.

The injured man also highlighted several facts of record not accounted for by the trial court, namely, that: (1) the instructions supplied with the at-issue harness were not specific to that model number; instead, they applied to several different harness models; (2) diagrams in the instruction manual provided with the at-issue harness did not depict the side D-rings that were on the harness in question (those side D-rings were identical in material and appearance to the back D-ring to which the harness is designed to be attached); and (3) although there were warnings sewn into the material where the side D-rings were attached to the harness indicating that the side rings were not to be used for "fall arrest," the warnings did not explain that term or specify that the load carrying capabilities of the side D-rings were different than the identical-looking back ring.

In addition, the injured man’s engineering expert observed that the instruction manual provided no instruction or guidance for the use of the harness, specifically, that the manual failed to instruct a user regarding the purpose of the side D-rings or the proper use of those rings. The expert addressed the manufacturer’s assertion that the harness never was intended to be used by an arborist or in the tree industry by observing that the instruction manual never articulated the intended uses or, by contrast, explained the applications not appropriate for the design. That failure to explain the appropriate use or to identify inappropriate uses constituted a significant warnings defect, the expert said, identifying several design and warnings defects in light of safer alternative designs available to the harness maker.

The appellate panel found that the injured man tendered sufficient evidence that, if accepted by the fact finder, would establish that the harness was defective, that the harness maker had been negligent in the product’s design and instructions, and that those deficiencies were a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Therefore, it was error for the trial court to rule that the injured man’s misuse of the harness was the sole cause of the accident and that the alleged design defect did not contribute to it, the panel said.

Foreseeability. As for the trial court’s determination that the injured man’s negligence claim failed because his misuse of the product was foreseeable, the panel observed that the determinative issue was whether the manufacturer’s conduct caused or increased the risk of the plaintiff’s injuries, and not whether a user would have done precisely what he did.

While there was no question that the injured man had not completely read and followed the manufacturer’s instructions, he produced evidence to suggest that the harness maker’s negligence was a proximate cause of his injuries, the panel held. Specifically, his engineering expert opined that the injured man had used the harness for a foreseeable application, that its design was defective, and that its warnings were inadequate. Therefore, the record showed a material issue of fact as to the relative negligence of the plaintiff and the defendant. Accordingly, because the trial court erred in resolving the question of causation at summary judgment, the order granting the harness maker’s summary judgment was reversed and remanded.

The case is No. 662 WDA 2017.

Attorneys: Joshua Stephen Licata (Friday & Cox, LLC) for James Zimmerman. Katherine McCurdy Wrenshall (Burke Cromer Cremonese, LLC) for Alexander Andrew, Inc.

Companies: Alexander Andrew, Inc., t/d/b/a FallTech

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