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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 8, 2014

Genuine issues of material fact snag loose screw claim

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

A truck manufacturer was not entitled to summary judgment on design defect and failure to warn claims by an individual injured by an allegedly defective grab handle because material questions regarding the significance of loose screws existed, a federal district court in California held. However, the manufacturer was entitled to judgment on a manufacturing defect claim after the plaintiff failed to submit any evidence showing that the allegedly defective grab handle differed from the manufacturer’s intended design (Mocettini v. Kenworth Truck Co. October 6, 2014, Shubb, W.).

Background. Louis Mocettini, a resident of California, filed products liability and negligence claims in California state court against Kenworth Truck Company, the manufacturer of a commercial motor vehicle, after he was injured in a fall from the vehicle. Mocettini asserted that his injury was caused by an allegedly defective grab handle that rolled in his grip as he attempted to climb into the vehicle, causing him to fall.

The grab handle’s design consisted of three elements: (1) a long, cylindrical steel tube; (2) two aluminum brackets located at either end of the tube; and (3) set screws that ran through the brackets and pressed against the tube. When fully tightened, the screws were designed to hold the tube in place by creating a friction bond. On the day of the accident, Mocettini contended that he had used the grab handle to enter and exit the vehicle three times without incident, but on the fourth time, the tube spun in his hand, causing him to lose his grip and fall backwards.

After removing the action to federal court on the basis of diversity, the manufacturer sought judgment on each of the claims asserting that Mocettini could not prove: that the grab handle’s design caused his injury; that the risk of the grab handle tube coming loose was “known or knowable” at the time the manufacturer distributed the handle; and that the handle differed from the manufacturer’s intended design at the time it was made.

Design defect. Under California law, both negligence and strict liability claims require the plaintiff to prove that the manufacturer’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the complained-of injury. Based on the testimony of expert witnesses, which asserted that the screws used in the grab handle's design would eventually loosen over time as a consequence of the handle’s use, the court concluded that a genuine dispute of material fact existed as to whether the design was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injury.

Nevertheless, the manufacturer contended that summary judgment was appropriate because a third party’s “superseding” actions absolved it of liability. In California, superseding cause is an affirmative defense. As such, the manufacturer bore the burden of proving that the intervening act was extraordinary enough to supersede the manufacturer’s liability. In an effort to meet that burden, the manufacturer argued that the failure of the vehicle’s owner to ensure that the grab handle’s screw remained tightened constituted a superseding cause of plaintiff’s injury because it was not reasonable or foreseeable. The manufacturer asserted that the failure to tighten the screws was unforeseeable because it contradicted state and federal law and industry standards which required owners to properly inspect and maintain their vehicle. The court disagreed with the manufacturer’s claim, finding that the failure to tighten the grab handle’s screws was not unforeseeable or extraordinary. Accordingly, the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on the design defect claim was denied.

Failure to warn. In order to prevail on a failure-to-warn claim under either negligence or strict products liability, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant did not adequately warn of a particular risk that was known or knowable. Based on the evidence presented, including the testimony of experts put forth by both parties, the court concluded that the fact that the screws probably would come loose as a result of normal vehicle operations was knowable and should have been known to the manufacturer. Consequently, the court held that the manufacturer was not entitled to judgment on the failure-to-warn claim.

Manufacturing defect. A manufacturing defect occurs when the allegedly defective product differs from the manufacturer’s intended result or from other identical units of the same product line. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the grab handle on his vehicle differed from the manufacturer’s design at the time it was made. The plaintiff failed to satisfy that burden. Accordingly, the court concluded that the manufacturer was entitled to judgment on the manufacturing defect claim.

The case number is 2:13-01300 WBS DAD.

Attorneys: Anthony M. Ontiveros (Clayeo C. Arnold, A Professional Law Corp.) for Louis Mocettini. Connor M. Day (Buchman Provine Brothers Smith LLP) for Kenworth Truck Co.

Companies: Kenworth Truck Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews CaliforniaNews

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