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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 8, 2014

Injured forklift worker cannot use res ipsa loquitur in place of expert testimony to establish defect

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A forklift operator could not rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to use circumstantial evidence to prove that a defect in the forklift she was operating caused her injuries, a federal court in Alabama determined. Instead, the operator was required to provide expert testimony to support her negligence claims, which she failed to do, justifying the court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer (McWilliams v. Yale Carolinas, Inc., May 5, 2014, Capel, Jr., W.).

Background. Annette McWilliams, who was using a forklift to stack pallets on racks, was injured when, after placing one of the pallets on the rack, the forks failed to lower completely to the ground. McWilliams exited the forklift, walking around to inspect the forks when the front end of the forklift fell the remaining distance to the ground. The front end of the forklift landed on McWilliams right foot causing the amputation of three of her toes. McWilliams filed a lawsuit against Yale Carolinas, Inc., the manufacturer of the forklift, alleging negligence and wantonness on the part of the company. The company moved for summary judgment in its favor, arguing that absent expert testimony, McWilliams could not prove that the design or manufacture of the forklift in question was unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. McWilliams countered that res ipsa loquitur applied and, therefore, a defect could be proven using circumstantial evidence and that no expert was needed because a lay juror could reasonably infer a defective condition.

Res ipsa loquitur. The court determined that res ipsa loquitur did not apply in this case because McWilliams failed to prove that (1) the manufacturer had full management and control of the forklift, and (2) it was common knowledge that the accident “could not have happened if those having control of the [forklift] had not been negligent.”

Although McWilliams alleged that the manufacturer had full management and control of the forklift, her other allegations contradicted this assertion. She alleged that the forklift was placed with her employer and that she had been using the forklift at the time of the accident. She also described her own use of and physical control over the forklift, and admitted that she inspected the forklift before operating it. There was also evidence that even though McWilliams was typically the only employee authorized to operate the forklift, other employees also used it. Thus, McWilliams failed to meet the first prong of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine—that the manufacturer had full management and control of the product.

With regard to the second prong—that the accident would not have occurred had the manufacturer not been negligent—the court found that it was not within the common knowledge and experience of mankind to know that it was the manufacturer’s negligence in manufacturing the forklift that caused the accident. Therefore, res ipsa loquitur did not apply to this case.

Expert testimony. Despite McWilliams’ argument that a jury could reasonably infer from the facts of the accident that a defective condition caused her injuries and that, therefore, expert testimony was not required, the court held that a forklift was a machine composed of parts that would not be familiar to lay jurors. The court went on to note that in addition to the ordinary complexity of a forklift, McWilliams testified that this particular forklift was a demonstration model designed and manufactured to meet a specific need as requested by her employer. Because the forklift in this case was unique and even more complex than typical forklifts, expert testimony was required to establish negligence on the part of the manufacturer.

The case number is 2:13-CV-351-WC.

Attorneys: Aaron J. Ashcraft (Bennett Law Firm, PC) for Annette McWilliams. Michael Joseph Cohan (Webster, Henry, Lyons, White, Bradwell & Black, PC) for Yale Carolinas, Inc.

Companies: Yale Carolinas, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews ExpertEvidenceNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews AlabamaNews

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