By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.
Summary judgment for a dump trailer manufacturer was reversed on lower court errors because the record showed facts in dispute on compliance with safety standards, foreseeability of modifications, and the need for warnings.
A truck driver, who was injured when he slipped down the stairs of a dump trailer while he was working on it, offered sufficient evidence to support his strict liability and negligence claims in his action against the dump trailer manufacturer, a state appellate court in Illinois ruled, reversing the lower court’s summary judgment ruling. The lower court erred when it did not allow federal safety standards to be considered on the issue of whether the stairs had been designed defectively, and when it held that there were no material facts in dispute vis-a-vis the foreseeability of the trailer being modified with a tarp and tarp cap (Gillespie v. Edmier, June 12, 2019, Cobbs, C.).
The Genesis II frameless dump trailer was manufactured by East Manufacturing Corp. (East). East sells approximately 1,200 dump trailers annually and competes with about 50 other companies in the industry. Specific to the Genesis II, four cast iron steps are attached on the trailer’s front side, in conformance with the industry standard, or a purchaser can choose a welded-on ladder or grab handle at the top of the trailer. With respect to the trailer at issue, the owner of a tractor and trailer leasing company worked with a third-party to order the trailer from East. The third-party also ordered a tarp cover/aluminum tarp cap from another vendor, which the third-party installed on the trailer before delivering it to the leasing company.
Barge Terminal Trucking transports landscaping materials and other products in bulk, and it leased the trailer at issue in 2012. The truck driver, who had been employed by Barge Terminal since 1998, slipped while climbing from the trailer back onto the stairs and then fell off the stairs. Although he landed on his feet, he felt a sharp pain in his back. He notified his supervisor of his injury and completed the job with a co-worker. The driver never returned to work and filed the present products liability lawsuit against the leasing company, its owners, and East.
Trial court. The lower court granted East’s motion for summary judgment, rejecting the employee’s assertion that East’s lack of other safety features were not in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements or trade group standards. In addition to ruling that OSHA rules do not apply to trailers and that the industry standards were not mandatory, the lower court determined that the trailer was built to the specifications of the purchaser, and that the purchaser had modified the trailer. Further, the lower court held that the third-party tarp and tarp cap modifications demonstrated that the trailer had not been unreasonably dangerous when it left East’s control. The employee filed the present appeal.
Design defect. The appellate court determined that there were facts in dispute with respect to the strict liability design defect claim. The lower court erred when it disregarded consideration of the recommended practices promulgated by several government and private safety standards entities, including OSHA and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The appellate court found instructive a state supreme court ruling which held that evidence of a product’s compliance with government safety standards was deemed relevant and admissible when evaluating whether the product was defective and whether a defect in the product was reasonable. In light of the precedent, the court found that OSHA was a relevant standard in the case at bar. Thus, under the risk-utility test, it was a relevant standard for the jury to consider when assessing the driver’s expert’s testimony that several aspects of the stairs—i.e., their spacing, width, and distance—and the absence of side rails conflicted with OSHA standards. Similarly, the court found other government and industry standards to be relevant. As such, the expert testimony in the case was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the trailer was unreasonably dangerous. In addition, under the consumer-expectation test, the appellate court held that the jury could conclude that a truck driver would reasonably expect the steps of the dump trailer to be properly spaced and have accessible side rails. Therefore, summary judgment for the manufacturer on this issue was reversed.
Foreseeability. The appellate court agreed with the driver that, when construing the evidence of the record in his favor, fact issues existed as to whether it was foreseeable that the dump trailer would be modified to have a tarp cap and tarp installed and whether a grab handle was necessary to provide a driver three points of contact to safely disembark the trailer. Despite the existence of modifications to the trailer, under governing law, a manufacturer may be liable if such a modification was foreseeable. The record included testimony that tarps and tarp caps were common modifications to dump trailers, and that when installed, the trailer at issue lost its three points of contact, which was part of the driver’s safety training with his company. Accordingly, summary judgment in favor of East on this issue was improper.
Failure-to-warn. Finally, the appellate court agreed that summary judgment on the failure-to-warn claim was incorrect. First, East knew that tarps placed on the front of a dump trailer would impact a consumer’s safety because the tarp would preclude the ability to maintain three-point contact with the trailer per the industry practice. Second, the appellate court was not persuaded that the driver misused the trailer when he crawled over the tarp cap to use the front steps instead of using the back steps as there was testimony in the record that the driver had used the steps for an intended purpose and it was foreseeable that he would use the front steps.
The case is No. 1-17-2549.
Attorneys: (Faklis, Tallis & Mead PC) for Dale Gillespie and Christine Gillespie. (Bryce Downey & Lenkov LLC) for East Manufacturing Corp.
Companies: East Manufacturing Corp.; Trail Quest Inc.
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