By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
The estate of a lift truck operator failed to prove that the design of the lift truck’s operator-adjustable parking brake violated government regulations, industry norms or practices, or consumer expectations, and, therefore, the manufacturer was not liable under a theory of negligent design for the death of the operator, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled, affirming on alternate grounds the trial court’s dismissal a jury’s $4.2 million award to the estate on its negligent design claim. The state high court also concluded that in rendering a verdict in favor of the manufacturer on the estate’s breach of implied warranty claim, the jury had rejected the failure-to-warn claim (Evans v. NACCO Materials Handling Group, Inc., March 22, 2018, McCullough, S.).
The lift truck operator, who was employed as a post folder gluer operator at an International Paper plant, was transferring bales of paper from a trailer into a plant when the truck became stuck in a gap between the retractable dock plate and the trailer. Another worker used his vehicle to tow the lift truck out of the gap and, once it had been extricated, the lift truck operator parked the truck on the loading ramp, which had a 12 percent grade, and applied the parking brake. However, the operator did not place chocks under the wheels. As the operator stepped between the two trucks to remove the tow rope, the lift truck rolled backwards, crushing him between the two vehicles. At the time of the fatal accident, the lift truck operator was not certified to operate the truck, having completed only the classroom portion of the certification training.
The operator’s estate filed a wrongful death action against NACCO Materials Handling Group, the manufacturer of the lift truck, on theories of negligent design and breach of an express or implied warranty. At trial, the estate presented expert testimony to prove that the operator-adjustable parking brake was negligently designed because it failed to eliminate foreseeable misuse by the operator and that a safer alternative design, which required parking brakes to be adjusted by a mechanic or with the use of tools, would have prevented the accident that occurred in this case. The jury found in favor of the estate, awarding it $4.2 million in compensatory damages, but the trial court dismissed the case, finding that the evidence had established contributory negligence as a matter of law. The estate appealed, arguing that the question of contributory negligence should have been decided by the jury. On appeal, NACCO argued that the evidence failed to establish negligent design as a matter of law.
Negligent design. Under Virginia law, the estate was required to prove that an unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the lift truck left the manufacturer’s hands. The estate could prove negligent design by provided objective evidence that the manufacturer had failed to meet objective safety standards or reasonable consumer safety expectations. However, there was no evidence that the design of the parking brake violated government regulations or published industry standards. In fact, the estate’s expert agreed that the brake’s design complied with applicable government regulations and industry standard, and that there were no international standards that prohibited the use of operator-adjustable parking brakes.
The estate also failed to present evidence concerning the reasonable expectations of a user or a consumer with respect to the operator adjustability of the parking brake. The court went on to explain that even if the estate had provided evidence that reasonable users expected a design that would have prevented an operator from adjusting the parking brake, it failed to prove that such an alternative design was safer overall than the operator-adjusted parking brake design. Experts for both the estate and the manufacturer testified in similar terms about the benefits and drawbacks of an operator-adjusted brake, and all the experts agreed that an operator-adjusted brake allowed the operator to make sure the brakes were functioning properly and to tighten the brakes as needed when time or wear caused the brakes to loosen over time. The operator-adjusted design also allowed the brakes to be adjusted for particular applications. The estate’s expert further testified that it was possible to design a brake handle that allowed an operator to tighten the brake without allowing him to loosen it, but admitted that such a design created another hazard, i.e., if the operator overtightened the brakes but could not loosen them, the cables could snap when the brakes were applied.
The experts for both side also agreed that requiring a mechanic to adjust the brakes, or making it more difficult to adjust the brakes by requiring the use of tools to perform adjustments, could result in the continued operation of trucks that needed adjustment or using trucks with weakened brakes in order to avoid facing potential unproductive downtime while the trucks were being serviced.
The court concluded that although the proposed redesigns would eliminate or at least reduce the likelihood of the type of accident that occurred in this case, there was no evidence from which the jury could conclude that these redesigns made the lift truck safer overall. Instead, it was just as likely that the proposed redesigns could pose a greater risk of injury to operators and bystanders. Thus, the estate failed to prove that the operator-adjustable parking brake was unreasonably dangerous.
Failure to warn. In the alternative, the estate argued that the jury could have found that the manufacturer had been negligent in failing to warn users of the dangers associated with the parking brake or that the warnings were inadequately designed. The jury form did not provide the jury with an option to find for the estate on a failure-to-warn theory. Instead it provided only two options to find for the estate: negligent design or breach of implied warranty. The context of the facts made it clear that the negligent design claim involved the design of the parking brake, not the design of the warnings. The jury had found in favor of the estate on this claim. The second option instructed the jury that the manufacturer breached an implied warranty if the product was unreasonably dangerous. Given that a product could be unreasonably dangerous as a result of a failure to warn, the jury’s finding in favor of the manufacturer on the breach of warranty claim indicated a verdict in favor of the manufacturer on the failure to warn claim. In light of the jury’s finding on the breach of implied warranty claim, the court concluded that the jury had rejected the estate’s failure-to-warn claim in this case.
The case is Record No. 161788.
Attorneys: James Joseph O'Keeffe IV (Johnson, Rosen & O'Keeffe, LLC) for Ronda Maddox Evans. Mark Douglas Loftis (Mark Douglas Loftis, Attorney at Law) for NACCO Materials Handling Group, Inc.
Companies: NACCO Materials Handling Group, Inc.
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