By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
The misuse of a hand-held grinder tool defeated the manufacturer’s liability for injuries caused by the unauthorized use of the device without appropriate safety equipment, the Indiana Supreme Court held in a decision overturning a contrary ruling by the state appellate court and affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer (Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Co. v. Johnson, November 1, 2018, David, S.).
The user of a hand-held grinder tool lost his eye and suffered other facial injuries while using the tool designed and sold by Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Co. At the time of the accident, the user was operating the grinder with an attached cut-off disc rated at 19,000 RPM without a safety guard and while only wearing prescription glasses that were made of safety glass. The instructions and warnings on the tool clearly indicated that the user must wear safety glasses while using the tool. Furthermore, the instructions stated not to use the tool with a cut-off disc unless a safety guard was in place and to only use accessories rated at or above 25,000 RPM. Because of his injuries, the user filed a products liability suit against the manufacturer. In response, the manufacturer filed a motion for summary judgment asserting the defenses of misuse, alteration, and incurred risk. A trial court granted the manufacturer’s motion for judgment on the defective design claim after finding that the manufacturer had established misuse as a matter of law due to the user’s failure to wear safety glasses while using the grinder, but denied the motion for judgment as to the failure to warn claim. Both parties appealed.
The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer and remanded the matter to the trial court [see Products Liability Law Daily’s, January 2, 2018 analysis]. On a Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court stepped into the shoes of the trial court to review the summary judgment ruling.
Indiana Products Liability Act. The user’s claims alleging defective design and failure to warn were governed by the Indiana Products Liability Act (IPLA), which provides that "a person who sells, leases, or otherwise puts into the stream of commerce any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to any user or consumer … is subject to liability for physical harm caused by that product to the user or the consumer[.]" Under the IPLA, a product may be considered defective due to a manufacturing flaw, a design defect, or a failure to warn of dangers in the product’s use. The IPLA contains three affirmative defenses to a products liability action. They are misuse, alteration, and incurred risk. The manufacturer had asserted all three defenses against the claims raised by the user. At issue in this action was whether the misuse defense serves as a complete bar to recovery in products liability actions. Upon review of the legislative history, the court concluded that, if proven, misuse is a complete defense. Such a claim is proven if the misuse of the product was the cause of the harm and the misuse was not reasonably expected by the seller.
Misuse. To assert a misuse defense, the manufacturer must prove that the user misused the product in an unforeseeable manner that ultimately caused the physical harm endured by the user. In this case, the manufacturer contended that the user misused the grinder by failing to wear appropriate safety glasses and by using a cut-off disc with an inadequate RPM rating without a safety guard in place in direct contravention of the tool’s operating instructions and warnings. While none of these misuses individually were unforeseeable, the court reasoned that the manufacturer could not have reasonably expected the user to completely disregard the instructions and warnings and misuse the device in three distinct ways. As such, the court found that the user’s multiple failures to follow the instructions for the use of the tool were the cause of his injuries and, taken together, could not have been reasonably anticipated by the seller. Consequently, the state high court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer on the design defect claim.
The case is No. 18S-CT-548.
Attorneys: Peter J. Rusthoven (Barnes & Thornburg LLP) for Campbell Hausfeld and Scott Fetzer Co. Theodore L. Stacy (Theodore L. Stacy, Attorney at Law) for Paul Johnson.
Companies: Scott Fetzer Co.
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