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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 11, 2015

$1.3M wrongful death award reversed – no evidence aerial lift’s design unreasonably dangerous

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

In applying the five factors used to determine whether a product’s risk outweighed its utility, the Texas Supreme Court found no evidence that an aerial lift was unreasonably dangerous—that is, that its risks outweighed its utility. Thus, the state high court reversed a court of appeals decision affirming a jury verdict awarding damages in the amount of $1,305,701.70 to the estate of a worker who died when the lift he was using tipped over and crashed to the floor. The court determined that the evidence conclusively established that the products risks did not outweigh its utility. Although the court did agree that while the evidence of a safer alternative design was weak, it was not less than a mere scintilla, the fact that the risk did not outweigh the utility was dispositive in this case (Genie Industries, Inc. v. Maytak, May 8, 2015, Hecht, N.).

Background. The worker, Ricky Maytak, who was standing on the lift platform to complete some high-ceiling electrical work, died from massive head injuries he received when the lift tipped over and crashed to the floor as it was being repositioned with the lift extended to its full 40' height. The worker’s estate filed a products liability action against Genie Industries, Inc., the manufacturer of the aerial lift, alleging that the lift was defective because the design did not account for foreseeable misuses of the product, specifically that the outriggers would be raised and the base would be moved while someone was elevated inside the lift’s basket. The estate also argued that the manufacturer was aware of the lift’s potential to tip over and cause injury if it was moved while the bucket was in the air at any height, yet failed to design out the defect.

The jury found in favor of the estate and awarded it damages totalling $1,305,701.70. The appellate court affirmed the jury’s verdict, finding that the evidence supported the jury’s conclusion that the misuse was foreseeable to the manufacturer and there were reasonable and feasible design alternatives that could have reduced the magnitude and likelihood of the injury in this case.

Safer alternative designs. The estate offered evidence of four alternative designs which the estate claimed were both technically and economically feasible. In reexamining those designs, the state high court concluded that most of the proffered alternatives would have created their own risks, would have reduced the lift’s utility, or would have allowed for misuse. However, the court refused to agree with the manufacturer that there was no evidence to support an alternative design that might have prevented the accident or injuries sustained by the worker without minimizing the lift’s utility.

Risk-utility. According to the state high court, the evidence of the lift’s utility was undisputed. The court then explained the risk presented—that a user would ignore the instructions in the user manual, the signs on the lift itself, and the obvious danger that the lift would tip if the outriggers are removed when a person is on a fully elevated platform. The court noted that the risk was so obvious that the evidence did not reflect a single other accident involving a fully extended 40' lift despite the more than 100,000 lifts of the same model in use world-wide. Thus, the likelihood of injury was almost nonexistent. Furthermore, there was no evidence that a substitute would have met the same need and there was minimal evidence of an alternative design. Finally, the danger of misuse was obvious and readily avoidable as was the risk of a tip-over. Based on its analysis, the court concluded that reasonable minds could not differ on the risk-utility balancing considerations, and thus, it reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and entered judgment for the manufacturer.

The case is No. 13-0042; see also dissenting opinion.

Attorneys: Edward D. Fisher (Provost & Umphrey Law Firm, LLP) for Ricky Matak. Constance H. Pfeiffer (Beck Redden LLP) for Genie Industries, Inc.

Companies: Genie Industries, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews DamagesNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews TexasNews

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