By Joshua Frumkin, J.D.
Crane manufacturer had duty to provide warnings that identified and addressed critical safety issues associated with normal use of the product.
In an action arising from a fatal accident involving a crane manufactured by Konecranes, Inc., a federal district court in Georgia has denied the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on all claims asserted by the decedent’s parents. The court ruled that the company failed in its duty as manufacturer to warn the product purchaser of critical information that could have prevented the accident (Hill v. Konecranes, Inc., June 16, 2020, Baker, R.).
A fatal crane accident occurred in June 2015 inside a Georgia paper plant (International Paper or "IP"). A worker was operating the crane when a gust of wind pushed it down the tracks and caused a collision that derailed the crane. The worker was ejected from the crane's cab and fell to his death. The crane was designed to be equipped with four storm brakes to prevent such an accident but, at the time of the accident, only one was functional. Konecranes had provided International Paper with the operating manual but no other guidelines for the safe use of the crane. The manual included the following warning: "Do not operate the crane in high winds. If the weather becomes threatening, move the crane to the parking area. Stop crane operation, tie down the crane, and set the storm brakes." However, the operating manual did not define "high winds," did not identify the maximum wind speed at which the crane could be operated safely, and did not specify the minimum number of functioning storm brakes necessary to operate the crane safely.
The deceased worker's parents filed suit against Konecranes in February 2017. In response to the company’s subsequent motion for summary judgment, the parents argued that Konecranes had a duty as manufacturer to warn consumers of the minimum number of emergency brakes and the maximum safe wind speed, and had failed to provide those warnings to IP.
Claims were adequately pleaded. Konecranes argued that the parents had raised a new products liability cause of action in their reply to its summary-judgment motion and that because the claim had not been originally pleaded in the complaint, it could not be raised in response to the motion. Explaining that a party cannot raise a claim in the first instance in a motion for summary judgment and that a complaint must place the defendant on notice of the claims being asserted and the grounds on which they rest, the court determined that the complaint contained sufficient allegations of Konecranes’s negligence in this matter, including that the company failed to provide appropriate safety and precautionary procedures or to warn of what conditions can cause dangerous and hazardous situations. The court concluded that those allegations were sufficient to establish the basis for the instant claims.
Duty to warn. The court found that Konecranes had a clear duty to inform IP of the a for ementioned dangers but failed to do so. As manufacturer, Konecranes had a duty to warn of dangers that it knew or reasonably should have known about its product. The court found that company had a duty to warn of dangers inherent to its cranes—including the minimum number of functional brakes required to safely operate a crane and the maximum wind speed at which acrane may be operated safely. Konecranes even provided testimony that the maximum safe wind speed of each crane is unique, and that IP could not have known that information without having been apprised of it. Similarly, IP could not have known the minimum number of functional brakes without having been provided that information by the manufacturer. As those facts could not have been known to IP but were known to Konecranes, the court found that the manufacturer had a duty to warn of them.
Learned intermediary and sophisticated user doctrines. Konecranes’s only argument concerning its duty was that IP was a sophisticated user or a so-called learned intermediary. Because that contention was not further supported by evidence or argument, however, the court held that this failure was fatal to the summary-judgment motion. Additionally, under Georgia law, the sophisticated user and learned intermediary doctrines are separate concepts. Konecranes mistakenly had used the terms interchangeably, which the court found constituted independent grounds to dismiss the company’s motion.
The court rejected Konecranes’s argument that it was entitled to summary judgment under the learned intermediary doctrine. Where a product is vended towards a particular and specific group, manufacturers are not required to warn against risks generally known to that group. Georgia courts have rejected the application of this doctrine to equipment manufacturing cases. Additionally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit previously instructed that an intermediary's actual knowledge is a condition precedent to the doctrine's application. Moreover, the Georgia Court of Appeals has held that actual knowledge is not sufficient; a court must balance multiple factors, only one of which is the intermediary's actual knowledge. Here, there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether IP was aware of the dangers relating to the crane. The court determined that a jury could reasonably find, based on testimony provided, that IP was unaware of even the function of the storm brakes. As such, the court held that IP could not be considered a learned intermediary.
The court also rejected Konecranes’s use of the sophisticated user doctrine, which applies where the person using a product should know of a danger or where the danger should become apparent through the product's use. There is a variation of this doctrine—the "sophisticated intermediary defense"—which is applied by some courts where the employer of a user acts as the sophisticated party instead of the user himself. Because Konecranes failed to acknowledge the distinction or analyze its application, the court found another independent justification to deny the manufacturer’s summary-judgment motion. Furthermore, even if Konecranes had properly argued this defense, the court noted that the company had failed to articulate how the doctrine would entitle the manufacturer to summary judgment. Critically, the court held that a jury could find that Konecranes should have foreseen that IP was not a sophisticated user and did not know the dangers because IP had operated the crane without adequately functioning storm brakes repeatedly with Konecranes’s knowledge.
Failure to warn constituted breach. In addition, Konecranes failed to show that the record lacked evidence to support the parents’ case; therefore, the court ruled that the burden of proof did not shift from the company. Where a manufacturer has a duty to warn, the failure to warn constitutes a breach of that duty. Relying on extensive and uncontested expert testimony, the court concluded that Konecranes did not fulfill its duties in numerous distinct ways, including by failing to include an adequate warning in the crane’s manual.
Causation. Konecranes argued that there was no evidence that affirmatively indicated that the company’s conduct was the proximate cause of the accident. The court found this contention was contradicted by the record. The parents’ experts opined that if the manufacturer had fulfilled its obligations relating to the crane, "the incident would not have occurred." Further, one expert testified that a post-accident inspection revealed that only one of the crane’s storm brakes functioned properly during the incident and that the manufacturer’s failure to inform IP of the severity of the lack of the storm brakes was the "primary cause" of the accident.
Konecranes provided no challenge to these opinions and an IP employee testified that IP relied upon the manufacturer’s manual and that IP would have heeded any warnings regarding wind speed and storm brakes if Konecranes had included those warnings. Further, Konecranes did not provide any support for its claim that the crane accident "was not reasonably foreseeable" by the manufacturer. According to the court, given IP’s reliance upon Konecranes, the jury could find it foreseeable that the manufacturer’s failures would cause IP to operate the crane in an unsafe condition and that IP’s operation of the crane in an unsafe condition was not only foreseeable to Konecranes, but also known by the company.
The court found the causal connection between the fatal accident and the manufacturer’s failures to be straightforward: i.e., the storm brakes were designed to prevent the very type of accident that occurred. Thus, it was foreseeable that the manufacturer’s repeated failure to apprise IP of the condition of the brakes and to warn IP of the dangers of operating the crane without the brakes functioning properly would result in such an accident.
Finally, the court rejected Konecranes’s claim that an intervening act, and not its own negligence, proximately caused the accident. The court noted that the manufacturer never identified the alleged intervening act or omission. It will be for the jury to determine if the worker’s death was caused solely by Konecranes’s acts and omissions, solely by IP’s acts and omissions, or by a combination of those acts and omissions, the court concluded.
The case is No. 4:17–cv–165.
Attorneys: John Christopher Clark (Clark & Smith Law Firm, LLC) for Emma Hill and William Hill. Edgar Murray Smith (FisherBroyles LLP) for Konecranes, Inc. and Morris Material Handling, Inc.
Companies: Konecranes, Inc.; Morris Material Handling, Inc.
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