By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
The trial court misinterpreted New Jersey high court precedent in concluding that a man injured in a pallet jack accident had to rely on the indeterminate product defect test because he could not identify a specific defect with the equipment.
The New Jersey federal district court misinterpreted New Jersey Supreme Court precedent in ruling that an individual who sought to bring a product defect claim against the manufacturer of a pallet jack under the state’s product liability law had to rely upon a test created under 1999 high court precedent—the indeterminate product defect test—where he could not identify a specific defect with the pallet jack. In a decision designated as not for publication, a federal appellate panel interpreted the at-issue precedent within the context of the state of the law preceding it and held that plaintiffs could rely on the circumstantial evidence test to prove non-specific defect claims before the 1999 opinion, so it could not automatically be concluded that the high court had limited the use of that long-established option by introducing the indeterminate product defect test (McManus v. Barnegat Operating Co., L.P., October 2, 2020, per curiam).
While using a pallet jack—a type of cart used to lift and transport heavy loads—to deliver two pallets to a rehabilitation/nursing center, an individual’s arm was caught in the pallet jack’s handle and he sustained personal injury. The injured man sued the pallet jack manufacturer, among others, alleging that the equipment was defective under New Jersey’s Products Liability Act. According to the injured man, the pallet jack’s forks would only lower as rapidly as designed if he held the handle fully upright, rather than at the angle at which he had held it during the accident.
Circumstantial evidence test. Because the pallet jack at issue had been lost or destroyed, the injury victim’s engineering expert could not identify the specific cause of the alleged malfunction. Instead, the injured man sought to prove his manufacturing defect claim through the "circumstantial evidence test," which allows a plaintiff to attribute a product defect to the manufacturer based on factors including the product’s age, prior usage, and expected durability. The manufacturer moved for summary judgment and the trial court held that the injured man could not rely upon the circumstantial evidence test because he could not identify a specific defect with the pallet jack. Plaintiffs who cannot identify specific defects must instead rely on the indeterminate product defect test alone, the trial court reasoned, granting the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment because the injured man could not satisfy that test’s requirements. The injury victim appealed the trial court’s decision.
To prove a manufacturing defect claim under the New Jersey Products Liability Act, a plaintiff must establish that a product was defective, that the defect existed when the product left the manufacturer’s control, and that the defect proximately caused injuries to the plaintiff, a reasonably foreseeable or intended user. Establishing that a product was defective does not require proof of a specific defect. Traditionally, New Jersey law provided three methods of proving that the alleged defect existed when the product left the manufacturer’s control: (1) offering direct evidence of the product defect and when it arose; (2) showing that the accident would not normally have occurred absent a product defect under the circumstantial evidence test, such as by comparing the age and prior usage of the product to its durability and expected life span; and (3) negating causes for the product failure that could not be attributed to the defendant, to make it reasonable to infer that the defect was attributable to the defendant.
New test added. In a 1999 case, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court added one more method of proving a product defect claim. The plaintiff in that case, who could not identify a specific defect, sought a jury instruction on the traditional negligence doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The court determined that res ipsa loquitur would be inappropriate in a product defect case because it originates from a materially different legal context, and the court instead introduced the "indeterminate product defect test" as an effective substitute. Under this test, it could be inferred that the harm sustained by the plaintiff was caused by a product defect existing at the time of sale or distribution, without proof of a specific defect, when the incident that harmed the plaintiff: (a) was of a kind that ordinarily occurs as a result of a product defect; and (b) was not, in the particular case, solely the result of causes other than product defect existing at the time of sale or distribution. The indeterminate product defect test was so named "because its use is limited to those product liability cases in which the plaintiff cannot prove a specific defect," the high court explained.
New test does not preclude use of old test. The federal trial court in the case at bar cited the 1999 opinion for the proposition that plaintiffs who cannot allege a specific defect are limited to using the indeterminate product defect test, while the circumstantial evidence test is limited to cases involving specific defects. Because it found that the injured man could not identify a specific defect in the pallet jack, it declined to consider whether he could raise a triable issue of fact under the circumstantial evidence test. This was error, the appellate panel found, predicting that the New Jersey Supreme Court would interpret its 1999 opinion differently. Plaintiffs could rely on the circumstantial evidence test to prove non-specific defect claims before the 1999 opinion, so it could not automatically be concluded that the high court had limited the use of this long-established option by introducing the indeterminate product defect test. While the court noted that the indeterminate product defect test is limited to cases where a plaintiff cannot prove a specific defect, that does not necessarily mean a plaintiff who cannot prove a specific defect is limited to the indeterminate product defect test. Rather, the high court’s language throughout the 1999 opinion revealed that the indeterminate product defect test is an option that plaintiffs are permitted to use, rather than one that they are required to use, the appellate panel advised.
Accordingly, the panel concluded that the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1999 opinion did not preclude the use of the circumstantial evidence test when a plaintiff cannot identify a specific defect. Because the trial court in the case at bar did not address whether the injured man could raise a genuine dispute of material fact under the circumstantial evidence test, the case was remanded for consideration in that regard.
The case is No. 19-3184
Attorneys: Randy P. Catalano (Law Offices of Randy P. Catalano) for Kevin McManus. Laura Peltonen (Burke, Worsham & Harrell, LLC) for Barnegat Operating Co., L.P., d/b/a Barnegat Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. Richard F. Connors, Jr. (Tompkins McGuire Wachenfeld & Barry LLP) for McKesson General Medical, d/b/a Barnegat Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. Joseph C. Amoroso (Coughlin Duffy LLP) for Crown Equipment Corp.
Companies: Barnegat Operating Co., L.P., d/b/a Barnegat Rehabilitation and Nursing Center; McKesson General Medical, d/b/a Barnegat Rehabilitation and Nursing Center; Crown Equipment Corp.; Heartland Rehabilitation Services
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