Products Liability Law Daily Widow’s pleadings were sufficient under Michigan law in vehicle lift malfunction lawsuit
Thursday, April 15, 2021

Widow’s pleadings were sufficient under Michigan law in vehicle lift malfunction lawsuit

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

Negligence and failure-to-warn claims were adequately supported by facts in complaint, manufacturer incorrect on several points of law.

The widow of an individual who was seriously injured when a personal vehicle lift malfunctioned during use sufficiently pleaded negligence and failure-to-warn claims against the lift manufacturer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in an unpublished opinion, reversing the lower court. Because the widow sufficiently alleged that the lift was defective under Michigan law, her complaint stated a plausible claim to relief on all counts, and dismissal was improper (Genaw v. Garage Equipment Supply Co., April 13, 2021, Rogers, J.).

According to the widow, her husband was standing next to the at-issue lift while a vehicle was being driven onto the light-duty four-post vehicle lift designed, manufactured, and sold by Garage Equipment Supply, Inc., when the lift "violently and without warning" slid across the garage floor and struck him on the head, causing him to fall to the cement floor and strike his head a second time. He later died from his injuries.

She filed a multi-count lawsuit against the company, alleging causes of action for negligent production, breach of implied warranty, gross negligence/actual knowledge, breach of express warranty, and failure to warn. A Michigan federal court ruled that her complaint failed to plead facts showing that the lift was defective or that a defect had caused the decedent’s injury, and, thus, her remaining claims also failed. That court granted the manufacturer’s summary judgment motion. The widow filed the present appeal.

Michigan law. The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the lower court, holding that under applicable Michigan case law, the widow’s pleadings were sufficient. The appellate court explained that a demonstrable malfunction is generally clear evidence of a defect and a specific defect does not need to be provided in order to state a valid products liability claim. Further, the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that circumstantial evidence adequately supporting a reasonable inference that the accident was probably caused by a defect attributable to the manufacturer is sufficient for a plaintiff to prevail at trial. Notably, the manufacturer in the case at bar conceded that a demonstrable malfunction can establish the existence of a defect.

Negligence. The widow asserted that a properly designed and manufactured lift would not have caused the severe and fatal injuries to an ordinary user, and that the lift had malfunctioned during normal use. The appellate court explained that the widow did not need to allege more than she had because her allegations were sufficient to support the reasonable inference that the lift was defective as a result of the manufacturer’s negligence. She also alleged, and it was not contested, that her husband received the lift in the same condition that it was in when it left the manufacturer. With respect to the proximate cause requirement, the appellate court was satisfied with the widow’s allegations that the alleged defect caused her husband’s injuries because it was foreseeable that the lift’s violent slide could injure a person standing nearby. The court explained that the proximate cause element does not go to how the defect was caused, but to whether the defect caused the injury, and that it does not necessarily require the absence of other causes. Accordingly, the widow met the requirements to plead a valid claim of negligent production. Thus, the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the claim. Because the warranties and gross negligence counts had been dismissed based on the sufficiency of her negligence claim, their dismissal also was reversed.

Failure to warn. Finally, the appellate court determined that the widow’s complaint was sufficient as to her failure-tow-warn claim. The widow stated that the manufacturer would have been alerted to the defects if its testing and quality control procedures had been adequately and non-negligently conducted, and that the manufacturer had constructive knowledge of the alleged danger because it should have known of the defect and the related risks. The appellate court was satisfied with her supporting facts, namely that her husband was ignorant of the risk of standing near the lift when it was in use. The appellate court explained that the manufacturer’s assertion that the widow had to plead what warnings were required was incorrect under applicable law. Further, the company had sufficient notice. Therefore, the lower court’s grant of summary judgment was reversed.

Concurring opinion. Judge Batchelder penned a concurring opinion, disagreeing with the reasoning of the majority of the court. She explained that the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, if applied, would support the conclusion that the widow’s claims had been sufficiently pleaded. She expressed concern that the majority opinion added a factual allegation to the complaint vis-a-vis the lift’s "propensity to slide" in its ordinary use, which the widow had not asserted in her complaint. Judge Batchelder also remarked that the majority created its own res ipsa loquitur supposition when evaluating the failure-to-warn claim.

The case is No. 19-2453.

Attorneys: Ali Wehby Charara (Law Office of Ali Wehby Charara) for Marylynn Genaw. Cara M. Swindlehurst (Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP) for Garage Equipment Supply.

Companies: Garage Equipment Supply

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