Products Liability Law Daily Judgment in favor of manufacturer in hydraulic lift injury suit affirmed
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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Judgment in favor of manufacturer in hydraulic lift injury suit affirmed

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

Trial court did not err in excluding stage hand’s expert witness.

The exclusion of the plaintiff’s expert witness and the resulting summary judgment ruling in favor of the manufacturer of a hydraulic lift in a suit filed by a stage hand who had been injured while using the equipment were affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Upon review, the appellate panel concluded that the district court had properly considered the qualifications and experience of the challenged expert and that the decision to exclude his testimony had not been arbitrary or capricious. Furthermore, the panel reasoned that summary judgment was warranted because the injured stage hand failed to present any admissible evidence showing that the product was the cause of his injuries, that a defect existed, or that the product was unreasonably dangerous (Siegel v. Blue Giant Equipment Corp., October 28, 2019, O’Brien, T.).

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma hired an architecture firm to expand a casino to include a theater. One of the firm’s specifications involved purchasing a hydraulic dock lift which, in accordance with industry safety requirements, was to be equipped with a "hinged bridge" with a lifting chain, removable safety handrails, and safety chains at both ends between the hand rails. Blue Giant Equipment Corp. submitted the winning bid on the hydraulic lift. The lift, which Blue Giant had manufactured to the purchaser’s specifications, was installed on May 11, 2010. At the time of purchase, the manufacturer provided an owner’s manual containing warnings and instructions, as well as a laminated placard containing warnings. The manual and placard directed that the guard rails and chains remain securely in place prior to using the lift and cautioned users never to apply weight to the hinged bridge unless it overlapped at least four inches with a solid surface. The manual also stated that under no circumstances should users ever use the bridge if it was supported solely by its lifting chain.

In May 2014, a stage hand at the new theater pulled a wheeled cart off the edge of the stage onto and across the lift. At the time of the accident, the hinged bridge was fully lowered and unsupported by anything except for the lifting chain, rather than being stored fully secured in an upright position, as was directed. Instead of stopping the cart on the dock, as required by the product warnings, the stage hand pulled the cart onto the unsupported hinged bridge. Moreover, in further violation of the warnings, the safety restraint chain at the end of the dock was not in place. The stage hand was injured when he and the cart fell 46 inches to the floor.

The stage hand filed a products liability suit against the lift manufacturer. The manufacturer moved to exclude the testimony of the stage hand’s expert witness and sought summary judgment on the claim. The district court granted the manufacturer’s motions and entered judgment in its favor [see Products Liability Law Daily’s November 1, 2018 analysis]. The stage hand filed a timely appeal, challenging the exclusion of his witness, summary judgment, and a protective order issued by the lower court.

Expert witness. On appeal, the stage hand argued that the district court erred in striking his expert’s testimony because it focused primarily on what the expert had not done in the field of engineering—specifically, in the area of material handling—rather than on the experience the expert did have. The appellate panel disagreed with that assertion, finding that the district court had enumerated multiple reasons why the expert was not qualified to offer expert testimony about the lift at issue in this case and had in fact taken into consideration the expert’s study of scissor lifts during his undergraduate education and his involvement with them as an expert in litigation. Having found the district court’s determination to be well-reasoned and specific, the appellate panel concluded that there was no error in the exclusion of the expert witness.

Summary judgment. The stage hand further challenged the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, arguing that based on the facts presented, a jury could conclude that defects in the lift and the failure to provide adequate instructions and warnings had been the cause of his injuries. Under Oklahoma law, to prove a claim for manufacturer’s product liability, a plaintiff must establish that the product was the cause of the injury, that a defect existed in the product, and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous. In reviewing the evidence, the appeals court concluded that the stage hand failed to present any admissible evidence demonstrating any of the required elements.

Moreover, the stage hand’s claim that the product was defective based upon inadequate warnings was unavailing based upon his own testimony. The stage hand claimed that he had never been given written or oral instructions on how to use the lift. In order to prevail on a deficient warning theory, the deficient instruction must have been the cause of the accident. Because the stage hand never saw the instructions or warnings, a defect in those instructions could not have been the cause of the accident.

Finally, the appellate panel asserted that even if there was a defect, the purported hazard was not hidden. The raised, open end of the lift, unguarded by the safety restraint chain, was open and obvious. The evidence showed that the injuries sustained by the stage hand were caused by his failure to utilize the industry-standard, factory-installed restraint chain and his actions in pulling the cart he was loading past the center of the lift and continuing to walk out onto the unsupported hinged bridge on the open end of the lift. Had the restraint chain been in place as required, it would have prevented the fall and the accident would not have occurred. Based on these facts, it was determined that the district court had not erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer.

The case is Nos. 18-5113 and 19-5007.

Attorneys: Frank W. Frasier, III (Frasier, Frasier & Hickman, LLP) for Timothy I. Siegel. Matthew Benjamin Free (Best & Sharp) for Blue Giant Equipment Corp., f/k/a Blue Giant Equipment, LLC.

Companies: Blue Giant Equipment Corp., f/k/a Blue Giant Equipment, LLC

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