By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
In an action arising out of injuries incurred by an experienced plumber while using a drain cleaning machine, the manufacturer of the equipment was entitled to summary judgment on the plumber’s strict liability design defect, manufacturing defect, and failure to warn claims, a federal district court in Arkansas held. In reaching this conclusion, the court determined that there was no genuine dispute of material fact and that based on the evidence presented, the manufacturer was not liable for the product liability claims (McLelland v. Ridge Tool Co., August 13, 2018, Hickey, S.).
The plumber, who had 30 years of experience, was hired to clear a clogged drain line at a sandwich shop in Lewisville, Arkansas. In order to accomplish this, he used a Ridgid K-750 drain cleaning machine manufactured by Ridge Tool Co. After setting up the machine, the plumber knelt and began feeding the cable down the line using the machine’s "auto-feed." Despite the manufacturer’s instructions to the contrary, the plumber was not wearing protective eyewear, nor did he hold onto the cable with a gloved hand as it was being fed into the drain. After approximately 15 to 20 minutes of continuously feeding the cable into the drain, the cable suddenly broke without warning, striking the plumber in the face, and causing injuries. The plumber filed suit against the manufacturer of the machine, asserting three strict product liability claims based on failure to warn, manufacturing defect, and design defect.
In response to the suit, the manufacturer filed a motion to exclude the plumber’s expert testimony, which was granted, and sought summary judgment on all claims.
Failure to warn. Under Arkansas law, in order to prevail on a failure to warn claim, an injured party must prove that the warnings and/or instructions provided were inadequate. If that is done, there is a presumption that if adequate warnings had been provided, they would have been heeded. This presumption may be rebutted by evidence which persuades the trier of fact that an adequate warning would have been futile. With the exclusion of the plumber’s expert witness testimony, the manufacturer contended that the plumber failed to meet his initial burden of showing that the warnings provided were inadequate. The manufacturer further argued that even if the initial burden had been met, the plumber’s testimony that he never read the manuals or warnings on any of his drain cleaning machines would have made the provision of an adequate warning futile. The court agreed with the manufacturer, finding that the plumber had failed to present any evidence that the warnings or instructions were inadequate. Thus, the manufacturer was entitled to judgment on the failure to warn claim.
Manufacturing defect. As to the manufacturing defect claim, the manufacturer asserted that the plumber failed to offer evidence establishing that the machine was defectively manufactured or was the sole cause of his injuries. With the exclusion of the plumber’s expert witness testimony, the court agreed with the manufacturer, finding no reasonable evidence that a manufacturing defect was the cause of the accident. Accordingly, judgment on the manufacturing defect claim in favor of the manufacturer was warranted.
Design defect. Finally, to establish a claim that the product was defectively designed, the plumber was required to show that: (1) the machine was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous for its intended use; (2) the defect existed when the machine left the manufacturer’s control; and (3) the defect was the proximate cause of the plumber’s injuries. In support of his claim, the injured plumber intended to proffer the testimony of his expert witness. However, because the expert’s testimony was previously deemed excluded due to its speculative nature, the plumber was unable to establish the essential elements of his claim. Consequently, the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on the design defect claim was granted.
The case is No. 4:17-cv-4007.
Attorneys: James M. Pratt, Jr. (James M. Pratt, Jr., P.A.) for Bubba McLelland. Darby Vincent Doan (Haltom & Doan) and Glennon Patrick Fogarty (Husch Blackwell LLP) for Ridge Tool Co. d/b/a Ridgid.
Companies: Ridge Tool Co. d/b/a Ridgid
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