By Robert B. Barnett Jr., J.D.
The technical nature of treadmills requires expert testimony to explain to the jury how the treadmill was defective.
In an injured woman’s suit against Sears, Roebuck and Co. and a treadmill manufacturer alleging that she was injured when her treadmill suddenly sped up, an Iowa federal district court has dismissed her suit in its entirety on summary judgment because she failed to raise genuine issues of material fact on her claims. Her claims—all of which required expert testimony and which included products liability claims for failure to warn, design defect, manufacturing defect, and insufficient inspection—withered when she was unable to offer any expert testimony after her original expert witness died. Furthermore, the court ruled that she could not, in the absence of expert testimony, attempt an end-run around products liability law to "rely only on the fact that her treadmill accelerated without warning to demonstrate that her injury would not have happened unless [the manufacturer] was somehow negligent" (Mauer v. ICON Health and Fitness, Inc., March 4, 2020, Strand, L.).
Background. A woman purchased a treadmill from Sears, Roebuck and Co. that was designed, manufactured, and sold to Sears by ICON Health and Fitness, Inc. She alleged that she fell when the treadmill accelerated automatically and without warning. She called Sears, which sent a technician to her house to adjust the treadmill. When the acceleration occurred again, she was thrown from the treadmill, breaking her shoulder, bruising her chin, and hurting her knee. She sued ICON and Sears in Iowa state court, alleging (1) failure to warn (products liability and negligence), (2) design defect (products liability and negligence), (3) manufacturing defect (products liability and negligence), (4) insufficient inspection (products liability and negligence), and (5) breach of implied warranty of merchantability. ICON and Sears removed the case to federal court. The woman disclosed the name of her expert witness who would testify that the treadmill accelerated because of either a console or lower control board issue. However, her expert died, and the woman never found a new expert witness prior to the close of discovery. ICON filed a motion for summary judgment.
Failure to warn. Iowa does not recognize a claim for failure to warn under a strict liability theory. Failure to warn claims in Iowa are negligence claims. The woman, however, never produced any evidence as to what warnings or instructions could have been provided to reduce or avoid her injury. Nor did she ever offer evidence of the actual risk that the warnings would address. Moreover, expert testimony would be required to help the jury understand treadmill design and how certain instructions or warnings could have been provided. In the absence of such evidence and of the woman having raised any genuine issue of material fact, ICON was entitled to summary judgment on the woman’s failure to warn claims.
Design defect. Iowa permits a single design defect claim incorporating elements of both strict liability and negligence, but it requires a showing of a reasonable alternative design that would have reduced, at a reasonable cost, the foreseeability of harm the product posed. The woman, however, failed to identify a reasonable alternative design or how that alternative design would have reduced or avoided the risks of harm. In addition, again, the court concluded that expert testimony would have been required to help the jury understand the alleged design defect. In the absence of either proper evidence or expert testimony, the court granted the summary judgment motion on the woman’s defect design claims.
Manufacturing defect. Iowa permits manufacturing defect claims under both strict liability and negligence theories. Under either theory, a plaintiff must show that the manufacturing defect existed at the time of sale. The woman’s evidence, however, never offered to demonstrate the proper design, nor show how the manufacturing of the treadmill departed from that design. Once again, too, expert testimony would be necessary to educate the average juror. As a result, ICON was entitled to summary judgment on both manufacturing defect claims.
Insufficient inspection. Iowa does not recognize insufficient inspection claims under either strict liability or negligence theories. ICON, therefore, was entitled to summary judgment on both claims.
Breach of implied warranty. Iowa recognizes a claim for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability based on a purchaser’s reasonable expectation that goods will be free of significant defects. Expert testimony, however, is necessary to establish merchantability. In the absence of any proof of a warning, design, or manufacturing defect, the court determined that the woman will be unable to establish merchantability without expert testimony. ICON, therefore, was entitled to summary judgment on the implied warranty of merchantability claim.
Res ipsa loquitur. The court then addressed whether the injured woman had the right to pursue a claim for general negligence under res ipsa loquitur. Iowa allows both general and specific negligence under res ipsa loquitur. The woman argued that res ipsa loquitur applied in her case and that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether ICON’s negligence caused her injuries. Because she did not press any buttons or engage any special features or programs, she argued, the treadmill would not have suddenly sped up in the absence of ICON’s negligence. ICON argued that the treadmill sped up, if it did speed up, because she accidentally engaged a program that changes treadmill speeds. The court concluded that the woman never produced evidence that the treadmill was defective or whether ICON’s negligence caused the defect. "The fact alone that the treadmill accelerated suddenly does not demonstrate that it would not have happened if ICON had used reasonable care," the court said. Furthermore, expert testimony was necessary to establish the defect and to explain to the jury how that defect caused the woman’s injury.
Nevertheless, the court said that using res ipsa loquitur was really just an attempt to end-run around Iowa product liability law and to escape the absence of an expert witness. In addition, the court noted that allowing her to use res ipsa loquitur to create a jury issue would defeat the purpose of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. Typically, the theory is allowed where the plaintiff lacks access to determine how a product is defective. Here, the woman had the treadmill. Her expert was free to examine it and determine the defect. Instead, she relied only on the fact that it accelerated to establish negligence, which the court said she could not do.
Therefore, the court granted summary judgment to ICON on all claims.
The case is No. C18-2009-LTS.
Attorneys: Samuel C. Anderson (Swisher & Cohrt PLC) for Marlene Mauer. Kevin M. Reynolds (Whitfield & Eddy, P.L.C.) for Icon Health & Fitness, Inc.
Companies: Icon Health & Fitness, Inc.
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