Products Liability Law Daily Jury to decide whether battery-powered hedge trimmer was defective
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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Jury to decide whether battery-powered hedge trimmer was defective

By Brian Craig, J.D.

A genuine dispute of fact existed as to whether the Black & Decker trimmer was unreasonably dangerous or defective based on a failure to warn of the battery’s attachment and charge.

In a products liability suit against Black & Decker by an individual who was injured while assembling a battery-powered hedge trimmer, a federal district court in Tennessee has ruled that a reasonable jury must decide whether the trimmer was unreasonably dangerous or defective. The court also found that reasonable minds could differ as to whether the user’s fault was equal to or greater than the manufacturer’s fault. The court ruled, however, that the user was precluded from seeking damages for past medical expenses, future pain and suffering, and diminished earning capacity based on his failure to include expert testimony (Seaton v. Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc., April 13, 2021, Collier, C.).

A man purchased a battery-powered hedge trimmer manufactured by Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc. The instruction manual included several warnings, including not to touch the hedge trimmer blades, but did not warn the user that the trimmer’s battery was already attached and charged. There also was no warning regarding the battery on the outside of the hedge trimmer’s box. In this case, the user was not aware that the battery was already attached to the trimmer. While assembling the trimmer, he sustained severe laceration injuries to his hand when he accidentally pressed two switches that turned the trimmer on. He filed suit against the manufacturer, asserting claims for negligence, implied warranty of fitness, implied warranty of merchantability, and strict liability under Tennessee law. The manufacturer moved for summary judgment.

Products liability. The court first held that the user adequately alleged that the trimmer was either defective or unreasonably dangerous to survive summary judgment. Under the Tennessee Products Liability Act, a prima facie products liability claim exists if the plaintiff shows three elements: (1) the product was defective and/or unreasonably dangerous; (2) the defect existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control; and (3) the plaintiff’s injury was proximately caused by the defective product.

The user asserted that the hedge trimmer was defective based on its lack of warning that the battery was attached and partially charged. The court concluded that the user sufficiently alleged a warning-defect claim to avoid summary judgment and that a jury must decide this issue.

While the court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer as to the user’s reliance on the prudent-manufacturer test to show that the hedge trimmer was unreasonably dangerous, the court denied summary judgment as to his reliance on the consumer-expectation test. The user stated he expected that the battery would not be attached. The court found that the user’s expectation was sufficient to survive summary judgment, as it provided evidence of an ordinary consumer’s expectations regarding the hedge trimmer. The court determined that there was a genuine dispute of fact as to whether the trimmer was unreasonably dangerous based on a failure to warn of the battery’s attachment and charge. Accordingly, the court denied the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment that the trimmer was not unreasonably dangerous.

Comparative fault. The court also ruled that a jury must decide the issue of comparative fault. Under Tennessee law, comparative fault precludes a plaintiff’s recovery if his fault was equal to or greater than the defendant’s fault. Here, the court found that a genuine dispute existed as to whether it was apparent that the battery was attached. Based on this genuine dispute of fact, the court found that reasonable minds could differ as to whether the user’s fault was equal to or greater than the manufacturer’s fault. Thus, the court denied the motion for summary judgment on the grounds of comparative fault.

Damages. Based on the user’s failure to include certain expert testimony, the court concluded that he was precluded from seeking damages for past medical expenses, future pain and suffering, and diminished earning capacity. Regarding past medical expenses, expert testimony was required to show the reasonableness and necessity of those expenses. In addition, although the court ruled that the user could seek to recover damages for any past pain and suffering, he was barred from seeking damages for any future pain and suffering due to his lack of expert testimony. Moreover, the court ruled that the user could not seek damages on earning capacity because expert testimony is required "where an alleged physical impairment and earning capacity is not obvious." Therefore, the court granted the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment to preclude the user from seeking certain categories of damages.

The case is No. 2:20-CV-124.

Attorneys: Thomas C. Jessee (Jessee & Jessee) for Gabriel Seaton. William B. Jakes, III (Howell & Fisher PLLC) for Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc.

Companies: Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc.

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