Products Liability Law Daily Expert’s use of OSHA standards and government regulations in formulation of opinion okay
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Friday, December 4, 2020

Expert’s use of OSHA standards and government regulations in formulation of opinion okay

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

An expert could rely on government regulations and industry standards applicable to ladders to support his conclusion that a dump trailer had been defectively designed.

A truck driver’s expert could rely on government regulations and voluntary industry standards and practices pertaining to the dimension and spacing of steps and ladders in forming his opinion that a dump trailer had been defectively designed, the Illinois Supreme Court held, finding that the expert’s opinion was sufficient to raise a question of fact that precluded summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer (Gillespie v. Edmier, December 3, 2020, Kilbride, T.).

A truck driver, who had been racking and levelling mulch that had been loaded on a dump trailer manufactured and sold by East Manufacturing Corp., injured his back while climbing down the cast iron stairs after finishing his task. According to the truck driver, the accident occurred when his hands slip off the top of the trailer as he attempted to place his right foot on the second step. His left foot slipped off the first step, causing him to fall off the stairs. He landed on his feet and felt a sharp pain in his back. The truck driver filed a products liability action against the manufacturer, alleging that the dump trailer was defective and unreasonably dangerous and that it lacked adequate safety features. The truck driver also alleged that the manufacturer had failed to warn users about foreseeable dangers from unsafe modifications to the trailer and that the product had not undergone product safety testing.

The trial court granted the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgement, ruling that OSHA practices did not apply to trailers and that the government regulations and industry standards cited by the truck driver’s expert were not mandatory. The trial court also found that the manufacturer had met industry customs and practices when it built the trailer pursuant to the purchaser’s specifications and that the trailer was not unreasonably dangerous in light of modifications—the addition of a tarp cover and cap—made by a third party at the request of the purchaser. The appellate court reversed, finding that the deposition testimony offered by the truck driver’s expert raised a question of fact as to whether the trailer was unreasonably dangerous (see Products Liability Law Daily’s January 16, 2020 analysis). The Illinois Supreme Court granted the manufacturer’s petition for leave to appeal.

Government and industry standards. The manufacturer argued that the appellate court erred in considering government regulations and industry standards that were not applicable to the manufacturer or to the dump trailer. In response, the truck driver contended that the appeal was limited to the issue of whether it was proper for his expert to use federal motor carrier safety regulations and standards issued by OSHA, the American National Standards Institute, and the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, all of which addressed the dimension and spacing of steps and ladders, in forming his opinion and, if so, whether that opinion created a genuine issue of material fact that precluded summary judgment.

The state high court held that the driver’s expert could rely on OSHA practices and other government regulations and industry standards for the sole purpose of explaining the basis for his opinion, adding that whether those sources were admissible as substantive evidence was not at issue in this case. In the expert’s opinion, the spacing and width of the steps and the lack of side rails conflicted with OSHA protocol and other industry guidelines, and therefore, the steps, as designed by the manufacturer, were defective and unreasonably dangerous. When viewed in a light most favorable to the truck driver, this testimony was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the dump trailer was unreasonably dangerous.

Concurring opinion. Worried that the majority opinion might lead to the incorrect impression that experts were always permitted to rely on regulations and standards as a basis for their opinions and must be allowed to testify to such evidence at trial to explain the basis for their opinion in every circumstance, Justice Karmeier, writing on behalf of himself and Justices Garman and Burke, clarified that trial courts, as the gatekeepers of information, must still determine whether the information relied upon by experts was reliable. This determination must be based on the facts of each case and pursuant to the principles governing the admissibility of evidence and the precedent of this court. In the case at bar, the expert not only cited OSHA regulations and standards to support his opinion but he also provided an explanation-other than safety-as to why the standards were relevant although not explicitly applicable to dump trailers. Karmeier also noted that the experts in this case disputed whether OSHA is in fact applicable to the stepladder when this trailer is parked for loading and unloading.

Karmeier also addressed failure to warn claim, which the majority opinion passed on based on its finding that summary judgment had been erroneously granted on the strict liability design defect claim. According to Karmeier, the failure to warn claim was a separate method of liability from the design defect claim and as, such, it warranted a separate analysis. To that end, Karmeier explained that it was undisputed that manufacturer had failed to provide any warning regarding the dump trailer. According to one of the manufacturer’s employee, the manufacturer occasionally installed tarp systems on its trailers and knew that third parties installed tarp systems on the trailers. Based on these facts, the truck driver’s expert had opined that the manufacturer should have warned consumers to also install a handle for safety when a user installed a tarp system. Accordingly, the truck driver raised a genuine issue as to whether the manufacturer should have provided a warning, and summary judgment on that issue was improper.

The case is No. 2020 IL 125262.

Attorneys: Michael W. Rathsack (Law Offices of Michael W. Rathsack) and Nicholas J. Faklis and Michael C. Mead (Faklis, Tallis & Mead) for Dale Gillespie and Christine Gillespie. Thomas E. Sarikas (Bryce Downey & Lenkov LLC) for Robert Edmier. Joshua G. Vincent and Kimberly A. Jansen (Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP) for East Manufacturing Corp.

Companies: East Manufacturing Corp.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews ExpertEvidenceNews EvidentiaryNews IllinoisNews

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