Products Liability Law Daily Mechanic injured by allegedly defective jack can proceed on statutory but not punitive damages claims
Monday, August 17, 2020

Mechanic injured by allegedly defective jack can proceed on statutory but not punitive damages claims

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Washington law does not permit punitive damages, and the injured man failed to establish that California law (which does) was applicable.

A mechanic who sustained personal injury as the result of an allegedly defective hydraulic jack presented enough evidence to survive the jack manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on his claims under Washington’s Products Liability Act and Consumer Protection Act, a federal court in that state determined, nevertheless granting summary judgment in the manufacturer’s favor on the injured man’s claim for punitive damages. While the contacts with California were significant, they could not overcome the presumption that Washington law applied in the case, the court concluded (Nazar v. Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc., August 14, 2020, Mendoza, S.).

While using a 22-ton air/hydraulic jack to raise a flat bed trailer in order to service one of the vehicle’s brakes, an individual employed as a diesel mechanic sustained injuries to his hand and forearm when the jack allegedly malfunctioned due to a design defect, causing the trailer’s brake drum to fall on his arm. The injured man filed suit against the jack’s manufacturer, Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc., asserting claims under Washington’s Products Liability Act (WPLA) and Consumer Protection Act (WCPA) as well as a claim for punitive damages. Harbor Freight moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that: (1) the mechanic failed to adequately plead entitlement to punitive damages under California law; (2) his WCPA claim failed because there was no evidence he had been induced by the manufacturer to buy the jack at issue; and (3) his WPLA claim failed because his actions were the sole proximate cause of his injuries.

Punitive damages. The injury victim argued that California law—which provides for the recovery of punitive damages—applied in his lawsuit because neither his residence nor the place of his injury (both Washington) had any "special significance" to the issue of punitive damages. Rather, California law was applicable to the issue of punitive damages because Harbor Freight is headquartered in and makes business decisions concerning product development in California, he asserted.

The court disagreed, however, finding that while the contacts with California were significant, they could not overcome the presumption that Washington law applied in the case, which involved an injury to a Washington resident that took place within Washington’s borders and concerned a product that the manufacturer had marketed and sold in Washington. As such, Washington law controlled. Therefore, because the state does not permit an award of punitive damages, summary judgment favoring the jack maker was appropriate on the punitive damages claim.

WCPA claim. Washington’s Consumer Protection Act prohibits unfair or deceptive acts/practices in the conduct of trade or commerce and includes a causation element that is satisfied by evidence that the defendant induced the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting. In the case at bar, Harbor Freight pointed to the injured man’s testimony that he had purchased the at-issue jack because his employer "had one, and needed another one." This testimony established that the company did nothing by the way of advertising, contacting the mechanic, or anything else to induce him to buy its product, Harbor Freight contended.

While a WCPA claim premised on affirmative representations requires evidence of a link between the alleged misrepresentation and the plaintiff’s actions, the court explained that the criteria for causation are different for omissions of material fact. In such cases, Washington courts apply a rebuttable presumption that the plaintiff relied on the defendant’s representations concerning the product, so as to avoid putting the plaintiff in the impossible position of proving he or she believed the opposite of the omitted fact when the purchase was made.

Here, the injured man’s cause of action rested on his allegation that Harbor Freight’s misrepresentation—in the form of an omission that the subject jack would fall under routine conditions—had induced him to make the purchase and, ultimately, had resulted in his injuries. Thus, the company’s argument attempted to put the injury victim in exactly the type of impossible position that the rebuttable presumption of inducement is meant to avoid, i.e., by forcing him to prove that he had bought the jack because he believed the opposite of the alleged omission. In that regard, the jack maker failed to show that no rational juror could find that element of the injured man’s claim was met. Consequently, summary judgment on the WCPA claim was unwarranted.

WPLA claim. As for the product liability claim, the manufacturer argued that the mechanic had acted unreasonably by having worked under the flat bed trailer without first having secured it with jack stands, as required by his employer’s policy, industry custom, and the subject jack’s product manual. Even accepting the company’s argument at face value for purposes of its summary-judgment motion, however, the court found that there clearly was a dispute of material fact that precluded summary judgment.

The injured man contended that he was in the process of removing the trailer’s wheel "so that he could place jack stands as instructed" when the jack failed and the trailer fell on his arm, the court remarked, adding that Washington law recognizes that for any given injury, there may be multiple proximate causes—and in such cases, the concurring negligence of a third party does not necessarily break the causal chain from original negligence to final injury. Accordingly, even assuming that a jury credited Harbor Freight’s version of events, it did not necessarily follow that the injured man’s failure to heed his training and the clear warning/instructions was the sole proximate cause of his accident, the court held.

Reasonable use. Harbor Freight also argued that the injury victim’s WPLA claim failed because his injuries did not arise out of his use of the jack as reasonably intended. The company maintained that it could not have reasonably foreseen that he would use its jack to lift a flat bed trailer off the ground and place his body beneath the trailer without securing the load using jack stands. As discussed above, however, the injured man came forward with enough evidence of an alternative version of events (i.e., that he was in the process of securing the trailer with jack stands when the jack malfunctioned, causing his injuries).

Furthermore, even if the jury were to agree with the jack maker’s version of the facts giving rise to the mechanic’s injury, the court said that such a finding would not necessarily preclude it from apportioning fault to the manufacturer’s allegedly faulty design. In short, because Harbor Freight failed to establish that the WPLA claim was deficient as a matter of law, summary judgment on that claim was inappropriate.

The case is No. 2:18-cv-00348-SMJ.

Attorneys: Aaron A. Crary (Crary Clark Domanico & Chuang) and Alisa R. Brodkowitz (Schroeter Goldmark & Bender) for Vitaliy Vladimiravich Nazar. James D. Hicks (Foley & Mansfield) and Laura A. Martin (Gerber Ciano Kelly Brady LLP) for Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc.

Companies: Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews CausationNews DefensesLiabilityNews DesignManufacturingNews WashingtonNews

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