By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
The manufacturer of a steel coil-cutting machine was not entitled to summary judgment in a product liability lawsuit against the company by a man who had been injured after the machine was turned on while he was attempting to clean the rollers, a Michigan federal court determined. Although the machine had been misused in a way that defeated its fail-safe mechanism designed to prevent such injuries, the court found that the misuse was reasonably foreseeable because a door without the fail-safe mechanism provided a clearer path to the rollers than the door with the mechanism (Adams v. Mestek Machinery, Inc., November 9, 2017, Goldsmith, M.).
An employee for a firm that specialized in cutting down steel coils for automotive companies lost two fingers and the use of his right hand when a coworker turned on a machine through which the steel coils were fed for cutting while the man was inside the machine for purposes of cleaning the rollers. The injured man filed suit against the coil cutter’s maker, Mestek Machinery, Inc., alleging that the machine had been defectively designed and manufactured. Mestek moved for summary judgment in response, arguing that the injured man had misused the product in a manner that was not reasonably foreseeable by entering through the wrong door for purposes of cleaning the rollers.
Misuse. In Michigan, the misuse of a product is an absolute defense for a manufacturer or a seller in a product liability action if the misuse was not reasonably foreseeable to the defendant. In the case at bar, the at-issue machine had been designed with a fail-safe to avoid the very injury suffered: it contained two doors—a yellow door and a blue door. Unlike the blue door, which was bolted onto the machine and contained a sticker that stated "[w]arning, door must be closed while machine is running," the yellow door was not bolted down at the time of installation and contained an interlock device that caused the machine to shut down entirely when the yellow door was opened and made it impossible for an operator to restart operations as long as the yellow door was open.
On the day that he was injured, rather than taking advantage of the interlock device, the employee (or a coworker) chose to unscrew the bolt on the blue door to gain access to the machine from that location. While the injured man contended that the blue door provided an easier point of access to the machine’s rollers, that door did not contain the crucial interlock feature that ensured the safety of employees conducting maintenance on the machine. As such, because the injured man used the machine in a materially different manner than its intended use, he engaged in "misuse" within the meaning of the state’s product liability law.
Foreseeability. Under relevant case precedent, manufacturers have a duty to design their products so as to eliminate any unreasonable risk of foreseeable injury. As noted by the injured man, however, the design of the at-issue machine provided an incentive to use the blue door despite the risk because it afforded an easier and safer route to the rollers. In order for the employee to reach the rollers from the yellow door, he had to travel about eight feet with only 18 inches of vertical clearance and had to avoid slitter blades hanging overhead.
Therefore, although the blue door was not equipped with a fail-safe device to prevent injury in the event someone attempted to turn the machine on, entry through the yellow door still posed a risk of injury by forcing an individual to crawl through a confined space in close proximity to slitter blades while the blue door led to a clear path to the machine’s rollers. Accordingly, because the injured man’s entry through the blue door was reasonably foreseeable, the machine maker was not entitled to summary judgment on his product liability claims.
The case is No. 16-cv-11764.
Attorneys: Paul S. Clark (Clark & Schoenbeck) for Robert Adams. Sarah Valeria Beaubien (Gallagher Sharp) for Mestek Machinery, Inc.
Companies: Mestek Machinery, Inc.
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