Industrial machine seller dodges product liability claim, but negligence still is a possibility


July 07, 2017

An individual who had been injured while working on a large, industrial machine failed to offer sufficient evidence from which it could be concluded that the machine’s seller had either affirmatively misrepresented the features/safety of the machine’s access door or to educate the finder of fact regarding the reasonable expectations of an ordinary purchaser, the Oregon federal court determined, granting summary judgment favoring the seller on the injured man’s strict product liability claim. Because it could not be concluded that the evidence entirely foreclosed the possibility that the injury victim could establish that the seller’s conduct had been negligent in some conceivable respect, however, the court granted his informal request for leave to amend his complaint in order to add particularized allegations of the machine seller’s purported negligence (Regan v. Sierra International Machinery, LLC, July 6, 2017, Papak, P.).

A maintenance employee at a metals company sustained personal injury while he was attempting to replace the cutting blades on a machine used to shear scrap metal into small pieces. The at-issue machine had been manufactured in Italy by an unnamed entity but was sold to the metals company by Sierra International Machinery, LLC. The injured employee sued Sierra, alleging that the design of the machine was unreasonably dangerous and that it had been sold to his employer without adequate warnings of the risks presented.

Seeking $750,000 in non-economic damages and approximately $52,000 in economic damages, the injured employee asserted causes of action for strict product liability under Oregon law as well as common-law negligence. Sierra moved for summary judgment on both claims, after which the injury victim made an informal request to amend his complaint in order to state with further specificity his allegations of the machine seller’s alleged negligence.

Product liability claim. One of two engineering experts retained by the injury victim testified in his deposition that the accident would not have occurred had the employee not climbed atop the shearing machine before the machine’s large door had been lifted into the vertical position necessary to conduct the blade replacement procedures, and that it also would not have happened had a coworker not continued to operate a forklift on which the injured employee was positioned at the time of his injury. Nevertheless, without having inspected the shearing machine, the expert offered the opinion that the machine was "unreasonably dangerous and defective with regard to changing the cutting blades" because the access door was heavy, its top hinge created a "stored energy" hazard when the door was lifted to its vertical position, and there were no specifically prescribed methods or procedures for opening the door.

The expert also opined that the hazard could have been eliminated or reduced if the access door were side-hinged or had been designed with springs, winches, safety support poles, instructions, decals, and/or a platform that kept the door open instead of the forklift typically used by the employees to prop the door in the open position while the blades were being replaced. The expert testified that he had not performed an analysis of any of those alternative designs, however, and that the full extent of the hazard analysis he had performed was to formulate the conclusion that raising the heavy door was dangerous. Finally, the expert opined that the door should have been designed to include a warning label that, after having been lifted, the door needed to be held in place. The other expert proffered an opinion regarding the hazardous nature of the door that was expressly based on his assumption that the injured man had been struck by the door as it fell downward—an assumption that was flatly inaccurate inasmuch as the injury had occurred while the door was being raised.

According to the court, there could be no serious argument that the functional characteristics of the shearing machine’s access door were so uncomplicated that a finder of fact could determine the practicability of alternative designs on the basis of inference and common knowledge. The machine was large and complex, and very few members of the general public ever would have seen such a device in operation. In particular, questions regarding how high the door needed to be positioned in order to ensure that metal projectiles did not escape the cutting blades while the machine was in operation, and whether a sliding or side-hinged door could have fulfilled the door's safety function, required esoteric knowledge of the machine’s operation.

Therefore, the injured man’s product liability claim could not survive Sierra’s motion for summary judgment unless he met his burden either to: (1) offer evidence from which a finder of fact could reasonably conclude that Sierra had affirmatively misrepresented the features or the safety of the shearing machine’s access door (i.e., the representational approach to the consumer-expectations test); or (2) offer sufficient evidence to educate the finder of fact regarding the reasonable expectations of the ordinary purchaser of a shearing machine by permitting the finder of fact to determine whether proposed alternative access door designs would ameliorate the risks presented, would be technically feasible, and would be practicable both in terms of cost and in terms of the shearing machine’s functionality (i.e., the risk-utility balancing approach). Accordingly, because the injured man failed to meet his burden to present evidence as to effectiveness, feasibility, functional practicability, and cost-effectiveness, Sierra was entitled to summary judgment on his product liability claim.

Negligence claim. As for the negligence claim, although the injured employee’s proffered evidence did not clearly give rise to any inference of Sierra’s negligence, it could not be concluded that the evidence of record entirely foreclosed the possibility that he could establish that the machine seller’s conduct had been negligent in some conceivable respect. Accordingly, the injury victim’s informal request for leave to amend was granted and he was directed to amend his pleading within 14 days in order to re-allege his negligence claim and to offer particularized allegations of Sierra’s complained-of negligence. As a consequence, the machine seller’s motion for summary judgment on that claim was denied as moot, with leave to re-file as to the adequacy of the subsequently amended claim.

The case is No. 3:15-CV-2302-PK.

Attorneys: J. Randolph Pickett (Pickett Dummigan Rhodes, LLP) for Jason Regan. John M. Socolow (Fitzpatrick & Hunt, Pagano, Aubert, LLP) and Michael A. Yoshida (MB Law Group, LLP) for Sierra International Machinery, LLC.

Companies: Sierra International Machinery, LLC

MainStory: TopStory IndustrialCommercialEquipNews WarningsNews DesignManufacturingNews OregonNews

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