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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 9, 2016

Failure to activate Personal Emergency Report System proves fatal to design defect, warning claims

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Strict product liability defective design and failure-to-warn claims brought against the manufacturer and the lessor of a Personal Emergency Report System (PERS) by the estate of the owner who suffered a stroke and died were dismissed summarily by a federal district court in Oklahoma because there was no evidence that the owner of the PERS attempted to activate it at the onset of the stroke (Brown, Estate of, v. Linear, L.L.C., March 7, 2016, Russell, D.).

The estate had alleged that the PERS unit and transmitter, which had been manufactured by Linear, L.L.C. and had been leased and monitored by Critical Signal Technologies, Inc. (CST), was defective in that it failed to connect to CST’s monitoring system. According to the complaint, had the unit operated correctly, the deceased would have been able to summon help and earlier medical intervention would have saved his life.

Proximate cause. The court agreed with the manufacturer’s argument that there was no evidence the deceased attempted to use his pendant transmitter or the console button to activate the unit at the onset of his stroke. The pendant was not found on or near the deceased when his family discovered him, but instead was located under the bed. Hence, there was nothing more than mere speculation to show that the deceased had attempted to push either the pendant or base buttons and that the attempt was unsuccessful, resulting in a delay in medical treatment. The court concluded that the estate could not prove that any injury to the deceased was a result of an alleged defect in the PERS.

Design defect. The estate also failed to establish that the PERS unit and/or transmitter pendant were unreasonably dangerous. According to the estate’s expert, the device was defective because it failed to include cellular backup so that if the telephone line malfunctioned, the unit would remain operable. However, there was no evidence that an ordinary person who purchased a PERS unit designed to operate through a traditional telephone line would have anticipated that if the landline failed to function, the unit would be able to connect to the monitoring station. Thus, summary judgment on the design defect issue was appropriate.

Failure to warn. For similar reasons, the court rejected the estate’s attempt to plead a failure-to-warn claim based on the manufacturer’s failure to inform the end user that a faulty telephone line would prevent the unit from operating properly. There was no evidence from which the court could infer that in January 2010 when the unit was manufactured, an ordinary consumer would have anticipated that the PERS unit attached to a traditional telephone line would have included a cellular backup, especially in the absence of any cellular provider. The fact that cellular backup could have been incorporated into the unit was not dispositive on this issue. The mere fact that a product could be made safer did not mean that it posed an unreasonable danger to the ordinary consumer who used it.

Furthermore, the manufacturer had no obligation to warn of the obvious risk that a monitor operating through a telephone line would not function if, for any reason, the line was inoperable.

Finally, the court noted that the estate failed to establish that the absence of a warning caused any injury to the deceased because there was no evidence that he had attempted to activate the pendant transmitter or the console at the onset of his stroke.

The case is No. CIV-15-280-R.

Attorneys: Curtis L. Smith (Curtis L. Smith, Attorney at law) for Charles A. Brown. Greg D. Givens (Givens Law Office) for Linear LLC. Peter L. Wheeler (Pierce Couch Hendrickson Baysinger & Green LLP) for Critical Signal Technologies Inc.

Companies: Critical Signal Technologies Inc.; Linear LLC

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews EvidentiaryNews HouseholdProductsNews OklahomaNews

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