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From Products Liability Law Daily, July 11, 2013

Grinder maker not liable for injury caused by third-party saw blade

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

A worker who was injured while using a grinder to which he attached a saw blade manufactured by a third party failed to present a triable issue of material fact as to whether the manufacturer of the grinder was liable for the worker’s injury, the California Court of Appeal held, finding no error in the trial court’s granting summary judgment on the worker’s products liability claims (Sanchez v. Hitachi Koki, Co., Ltd., July 9, 2013, Manella, N.). The appellate court ruled that pursuant to the California Supreme Court’s decision in O’Neil v. Crane Co., 53 Cal. 4th 335, 266 P.3d 987, 135 Cal. Rptr. 3d 288 (2012), the grinder manufacturer was not strictly liable for the worker’s injuries because (1) any design defect in the product was not a legal cause of the worker’s injury, and (2) the manufacturer had no duty to warn of risks arising from other manufacturers’ products. In addition, the court of appeal determined that, as noted in the O’Neil opinion, the same policy considerations which informed the court’s decision not to impose strict liability under the circumstances of the case applied with equal force in the context of negligence.

Background. Andres Sanchez, who drove and maintained trucks for his employer, was injured while attempting to cut a tire to make a motor mount to fix one of his employer’s trucks. Initially, he tried to cut the tire using his own four-inch grinder, but the grinder became stuck in the rubber of the tire. Sanchez then went to a hardware store where he purchased a grinder manufactured by Hitachi Koki, Co., Ltd. (and Hitachi Koki U.S.A., Ltd.) (Hitachi) and a Razor Back tooth saw blade, a third-party product. The safety instructions and instruction manual for the Hitachi grinder expressly warned that saw blades should never be used with the grinder. After returning to his workplace, Sanchez placed the saw blade on the spindle of the grinder, and attempted to cut the tire. When the saw blade came into contact with the tire, the worker lost control of the grinder, and the saw blade cut his left hand. The worker’s complaint alleged causes of action for products liability and general negligence.

The trial court, granting summary judgment to Hitachi on the worker’s claims, found that as a matter of law, “that use of a saw blade with the Hitachi Grinder is not the inevitable use of the grinder, nor even an intended use of the grinder, pursuant to O’Neil v. Crane Co.” The court went on to conclude that, pursuant to the component parts doctrine, Hitachi did not have a duty to design the grinder in a way that would prevent use of their grinder with a saw blade, did not have a duty to provide kickback prevention, and did not have a duty to warn regarding the dangerous use of the grinder with a saw blade. On appeal, the worker argued that the trial court erred in determining that the manufacturer of the grinder was not liable for personal injuries resulting from the worker’s use of the grinder with a saw blade manufactured by a third party.

No liability for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product. In O’Neil, which was a personal injury lawsuit against manufacturers of valves and pumps used in the steam propulsion systems of naval warships and which involved a plaintiff who developed mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos-containing dust allegedly from the valves and pumps, the California Supreme Court held that “a product manufacturer may not be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product unless the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.” The evidence in the case established that the Navy had required the defendants to use asbestos-containing materials to insulate the valves and pumps; and although the defendants complied with the Navy specifications, they did not manufacture any asbestos-containing insulation. The original insulation had been replaced with other asbestos-containing insulation by the time the plaintiff, a naval seaman, encountered it during his work on the valves and pumps. The state high court concluded that the defendants were not strictly liable for the seaman’s injuries because “(a) any design defect in defendants’ products was not a legal cause of injury to [plaintiff], and (b) defendants had no duty to warn of risks arising from other manufacturers’ products.” The court also noted that there was no evidence showing that the design of the defendants’ products required the use of asbestos components, and found that the “mere compatibility for use with such components [was] not enough to render them defective.” However, the court recognized that if a manufacturer specifically designed its product for a use that resulted in harm, the manufacturer would be liable for the injury. The O’Neil court also recognized that “California law does not impose a duty to warn about dangers arising entirely from another manufacturer’s product, even if it is foreseeable that the products will be used together.” The exception being, the court said, that “[w]here the intended use of a product inevitably creates a hazardous situation, it is reasonable to expect the manufacturer to give warnings”—under circumstances in which the product was intended to be used with another product for the very activity that created a hazardous situation.

Although the worker argued that O’Neil did not apply to his case, because he had argued that the grinder itself was defective, the California Court of Appeal determined that the worker’s case fell within the ambit of O’Neil. Sanchez sued one manufacturer for the harm caused by another manufacturer’s product. As in O’Neil, the worker’s injuries came about when the third-party product used with the defendant-manufacturer’s product caused him harm—in O’Neil, the third-party product was the asbestos used to insulate the valves; in the current case, it was the saw blade the worker attached to the grinder. The court rejected the worker’s attempt to distinguish O’Neil on the ground that he alleged Hitachi’s grinder was “dangerous” even when used properly. The worker was not injured by any intended use of the grinder, the court said, so he could not base his claims on speculative harm to someone putting the grinder to its intended use. The appellate court added that imposing liability under the circumstances “would convert strict liability into ‘absolute liability’ for product manufacturers.”

The court also disagreed with the worker’s argument that if O’Neil applied, Hitachi was strictly liable for the injuries caused by the third-party manufacturer’s saw blade because the grinder contributed substantially to the harm, or the manufacturer participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products. While the worker alleged that the grinder contributed substantially to the accident because it was defectively designed, the court stated that a product substantially contributed to the harm suffered by a plaintiff only when the intended use of that product inevitably resulted in the harm. The worker’s own expert opined that the grinder was not intended to be used with a saw blade, and the manual warned that use of a saw blade was “dangerous and may cause personal injury or property damage.” Moreover, there was no evidence supporting the proposition that the grinder would inevitably cause personal injury when used as directed. Therefore, the appellate court found that the grinder did not contribute substantially to the worker’s injury.

The appellate court also rejected the worker’s contention that the manufacturer participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products because it knew that consumers used saw blades with the Hitachi grinder and failed to take steps to reduce or prevent that misuse. The court of appeal deferred to O’Neil, which stated that a product manufacturer participates substantially in creating a harmful combined use only if it specifically designs its product for the combined use. The appellate court found no evidence showing that the manufacturer specifically designed the grinder to be used in proximity to or in combination with saw blades.

In addition, the worker’s suggestions that warnings should have been placed on the body of the grinder, or that more specific warnings about the harm that might result from the use of the grinder with a saw blade should have been provided, were unavailing. According to O’Neil, there was no duty to warn about the risks associated with another manufacturer’s product, unless the product’s intended use inevitably created a hazardous situation. The worker’s use of the grinder with a saw blade was not an intended use of the grinder.

Finally, in response to the worker’s assertion that the maker should have designed the grinder to prevent its use with saw blades, or equipped it with a kickback prevention feature to reduce the harm caused by its misuse, the appellate court, referencing O’Neil, stated that a product’s “mere compatibility” for use with dangerous components was not sufficient to render it defective. The court of appeal stated that for the same reasons that a manufacturer is not required, under California law, to investigate the potential risks of all other products and replacement parts that foreseeably could be used with the maker’s own product and to warn about all of those risks, it would be “an excessive and unrealistic burden” on Hitachi to require it to design its grinder around an unintended combined use.

The case number is B245050.

Attorneys: David S. Brown (Brown, Brown & Brown) for Andres Sanchez. Thomas B. McNutt (Youngerman & McNutt), Robert L. Panza (MacCarley & Rosen, PLC), and Ronald P. Kaplan (Ronald P. Kaplan) for Hitachi Koki, Co., Ltd.

Companies: Hitachi Koki, Co., Ltd. and Hitachi Koki U.S.A., Ltd.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews CaliforniaNews

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