By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
Arts and crafts store operator Hobby Lobby was properly characterized as a "manufacturer" of a bar stool made by another company that had collapsed and injured a customer who had sat on the stool while considering its purchase, a federal court in Louisiana determined, granting summary judgment favoring the injury victim regarding the company’s status under the state’s products liability statute. However, summary judgment favoring the injured woman was unwarranted as to Hobby Lobby’s liability, given the parties’ differing opinions on the issues of whether there was a deviation from the furniture maker’s specifications in the at-issue stool as the result of its assembly by a Hobby Lobby employee, whether the deviation was material, and whether the deviation was the cause of the customer’s injury, the court advised (Tendler v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., July 26, 2018, deGravelles, J.).
A woman who allegedly had sustained personal injury during a visit to a Hobby Lobby store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after a bar stool she thought she might purchase collapsed when she attempted to sit on it filed suit against the company under the Louisiana Products Liability Act (LPLA). The injured woman moved for summary judgment against Hobby Lobby, arguing that she was entitled to summary judgment on the company’s status as a "manufacturer" under the LPLA as well as on the company’s liability under the Act for her injuries.
According to the injured woman, Hobby Lobby’s employee had assembled the stool prior to placing it on the showroom floor, as is true of all Hobby Lobby furniture (the stool’s components had been sent to Hobby Lobby by Hillsdale Furniture). In addition, the company had affixed a price tag to the stool and was the sole entity prominently named on the tag, thereby labeling the stool as its own, she asserted. With respect to liability, she contended that, according to her expert (a mechanical engineer), the stool collapsed because it had been improperly assembled.
Hobby Lobby countered that its price tag had only been placed on the stool temporarily and that Hillsdale Furniture’s name had been permanently affixed to the bottom of the chair seat. Hobby Lobby maintained that it was not a manufacturer by virtue of having assembled the stool, inasmuch as its employees merely had followed simple instructions to assemble the stool, and that all parts, tools, and screws had been provided by Hillsdale Furniture. Hobby Lobby also argued that there were disputed questions of material fact as to its liability because: (1) when the stool collapsed, it had not yet left its manufacturer’s control as contemplated by the LPLA; (2) any alleged deviation from the manufacturer’s specifications had not affected the stool’s structural integrity; and (3) the stool had been overloaded by the customer’s use of it, i.e., she likely had placed her foot on a support ring attached to the lower legs of the stool while climbing onto the stool.
"Manufacturer" status. Under the LPLA, a manufacturer of a product is liable "for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product." A product is "unreasonably dangerous" under the LPLA if the product is unreasonably dangerous in "construction or composition," i.e., if, at the time the product left its manufacturer’s control, the product deviated in a material way from the manufacturer’s specifications or performance standards for the product or from otherwise identical products manufactured by the same manufacturer.
Furthermore, the term "manufacturer" is defined under the statute as "a person or entity who is in the business of manufacturing a product for placement into trade or commerce," as well as "[a] person or entity who labels a product as his own or who otherwise holds himself out to be the manufacturer of the product" and "[a] seller of a product who exercises control over or influences a characteristic of the design, construction or quality of the product that causes damage."
Applying those definitions, there was no genuine dispute of material fact that Hobby Lobby was a "manufacturer" of the at-issue stool, the court held, noting that under the LPLA’s plain language, Hobby Lobby’s assembly of the stool constituted "manufacturing," i.e., constructing, a product, as well as exercising control over or influencing the stool’s "construction or quality." The fact that Hobby Lobby had used "simple instructions" to assemble the stool or had done so "as a courtesy" to customers was unavailing, the court said, granting the injured woman’s summary-judgment motion as to the company’s "manufacturer" status.
Liability. That said, the court noted that the issue of liability was heavily fact-dependent and that both the injured woman and Hobby Lobby had presented expert witnesses who proffered different opinions on the issues of whether there was a deviation from the manufacturer’s specifications, whether the deviation was material, and whether the deviation was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury. There also could be differing opinions as to whether the injured woman’s use of the stool was a reasonably anticipated one, the court observed.
Summary judgment is inappropriate when conflicting expert opinions exist as to key issues in a case, the court explained, adding that reasonable minds also might differ as to whether—if the customer had in fact placed her foot onto the stability ring while climbing onto the stool—doing so was an improper use of the product or was a reasonably anticipated one. Consequently, summary judgment favoring the injured woman was denied as to Hobby Lobby’s ultimate liability for her injuries.
The case is No. 16-361-JWD-EWD.
Attorneys: Charles R. Moore (Moore, Thompson & Lee, APLC) for Susan Tendler. Peter Joseph Wanek (Wanek Kirsch Davies LLC) for Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
Companies: Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
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