Products Liability Law Daily Lack of critical evidence and machine’s obvious danger supported dismissal of lawsuit
Thursday, March 12, 2020

Lack of critical evidence and machine’s obvious danger supported dismissal of lawsuit

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

The worker failed to provide facts showing the machine was inherently dangerous or improperly guarded at the time it entered the stream of commerce. Nor did he demonstrate an obvious danger that was a ‘latent’ defect.

A worker whose hand was seriously injured while operating a tube forming machine could not rescue his dismissed strict liability and negligence product liability claims against the successor to the machine’s designer and manufacturer because his claims failed as a matter of law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled, affirming a federal district court in Missouri. The worker failed to provide sufficient evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact for trial (Farkas v. Addition Manufacturing Technologies, LLC, March 11, 2020, Smith, L.).

The tube-end forming machine was first sold in 1992 and included a point-of-operation guard that protected operators’ fingers from fitting in a clamp that surrounded a tube placed in the machine in order for the tube to be shaped or the tube’s end formed. The clamp was activated by a hydraulic system controlled by a foot pedal. The guard was unique to the size of tube that the original owner specified, although the machine could crimp other tube sizes. The machine had been bought and sold several times thereafter. After the machine had been purchased by the worker’s employer, a third party company was hired to alter the guard in order to allow several tube sizes to be processed. When the worker was crimping a tube smaller than the guard, his fingers were able to slide into the machine on top of the tube, leading to his fingers being crushed.

Lawsuit and lower court ruling. Subsequently, the worker filed suit against multiple parties, including Addition Manufacturing Technologies, LLC (Addition), the machine designer and manufacturer’s successor. He specifically claimed that Addition was strictly liable and negligent under design defect and failure to warn theories. Addition challenged the testimony of several of the worker’s expert witnesses and both Addition and component supplier Overton Industries, Inc. filed motions for summary judgment.

The lower court concluded that summary judgment was warranted because the worker failed to establish that the machine was unreasonably dangerous for its intended purpose at the time it was placed into the stream of commerce [see Product Liability Law Daily’s December 10, 2018 analysis]. The evidence failed to establish that the foot pedal design violated industry standards or that the point-of-entry guard equipped on the machine when it was manufactured failed to make the machine safe. In the absence of such evidence, the injured worker failed to establish valid product liability claims. The worker filed the present appeal.

Strict liability. The appellate court explained that under applicable state law, the worker needed to prove that the machine was in a defective or dangerous condition at the time of sale in order to succeed on his strict liability failure-to-warn claim. The original guard had been lost and no other proof was available to show its adequacy. The worker argued that the machine’s foot pedal made the machine inherently dangerous, rendering the guard deficient, but his expert testified that the guard-pedal combination was appropriate and that he could not testify as to the original guard’s safety. Because this evidence did not create a material issue of fact, the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the manufacturer was affirmed.

Negligence. The appellate court also agreed with the district court that the worker did not establish that Addition had a duty that was breached because under Missouri law, the defect must be latent to impose liability. In the present case, the danger was not concealed. Rather, the absence of guarding was visible and obvious. Further, facts in the case were similar to those in a precedential Missouri Supreme Court decision in which it was found that the danger of an injury from placing a hand into the machine’s point of operation was "open, obvious, and apparent." Accordingly, there was no material fact in dispute on the negligence claim, meriting the lower court’s summary judgment.

The case is No. 19-1068.

Attorneys: Kevin M. Carnie (The Simon Law Firm, P.C.) for Timothy Farkas. David T. Ahlheim (Childress Ahlheim Cary LLC) for Addition Manufacturing Technologies, LLC f/k/a McKee-Addision Tube Forming, Inc.

Companies: Addition Manufacturing Technologies, LLC f/k/a McKee-Addision Tube Forming, Inc.; Overton Industries, Inc.

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