By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
A pallet jack manufacturer was entitled to judgment on negligence and strict product liability claims arising from an accident allegedly caused by a dangerous and defective pallet jack, a federal district court in the State of Washington held. The court ruled that a superseding cause—the injured party’s failure to heed the warning decals on the pallet jack that were provided by the manufacturer—broke the chain of legal causation, an essential element to the products liability claims (Beard v. Mighty Lift, Inc., December 19, 2016, Robart, J.).
An experienced truck driver and pallet jack operator was injured while using a pallet jack manufactured by Mighty Lift for the first time. The incident occurred while the driver was delivering a load of interior tiles to a private residence. In order to facilitate the delivery, the driver parked his truck on the residence’s long, sloped driveway. Because the load was heavy and the floor of the trailer had a slope of approximately 9 degrees, the driver used a method called "drag-braking." However, as he moved the pallet towards the rear of the trailer, it became ensnared on a diamond plating on the floor of the trailer. In order to free the load, the driver engaged the jack on the pallet and raised the load off the floor. As the load came free it began to move forward towards the driver. In an effort to stop the forward momentum, the driver attempted to lower the load, but when that did not work, the driver let go of the pallet jack and jumped off the truck, followed by the pallet jack, which landed next to him. The driver was injured when the load on the pallet jack fell over pinning him to the ground.
The driver filed suit against the pallet jack manufacturer under the Washington Product Liability Act, arguing that his injuries and damages were the result of a design defect, a manufacturing defect, and inadequate warnings. The manufacturer sought judgment on the claims, contending that it had provided warning labels on the pallet jack which clearly showed that this particular equipment should not be used on an incline.
Causation. Under the WPLA, a manufacturer is liable to a user for harm proximately caused by the manufacturer’s product if the product is not reasonably safe as designed or constructed or is not reasonably safe because of inadequate warnings or instructions. Proximate causation was an essential element of all of the injured driver’s claims. To meet the requirements of proximate causation, an injured party must demonstrate both cause in fact and legal causation. Cause in fact is generally a question of fact for a jury to decide. In the case at hand, the injured driver submitted expert testimony sufficient to withstand summary judgment on his claims with respect to cause in fact.
However, in order to demonstrate proximate causation, a plaintiff must establish the existence of both factual and legal causation. The driver’s claims fell short with respect to this legal causation element because a superseding cause existed that interrupted the chain of legal causation. The court, relying upon federal statute, determined that where a warning is given, the seller may reasonably assume that it will be read and heeded; thus a product bearing such a warning, which is found to be safe to use if the warning is followed, is not in a defective condition, nor is it unreasonably dangerous. Based on the evidence, which included testimony by the driver that he saw and correctly understood the warning decal, but chose to act in defiance of the warning, the court concluded that the driver failed to establish proximate cause as a matter of law. Accordingly, the manufacturer’s motion for judgment on all of the driver’s claims was granted.
The case is No. C15-1464JLR.
Attorneys: Brian D. Scott (Scott & Scott, PLLC) for Albert Beard. Matthew R. Wojcik (Bullivant Houser Bailey PC) for Mighty Lift, Inc.
Companies: Mighty Lift, Inc.
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