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From Products Liability Law Daily, July 1, 2013

Maker and seller of air compressor not liable for dentist’s amputated finger in unguarded machine

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A manufacturer of a stationary vertical air compressor was not liable for injuries sustained by a dentist because the dentist was not using the compressor in a reasonably foreseeable manner, a federal district court in Louisiana held (Benjamin v. Campbell Hausfeld, June 28, 2013, Kirk, J.). In a separate decision in this matter, the court concluded that the retail seller of the air compressor was not subject to liability under the Louisiana Products Liability Act (LPLA) and that it owed no duty to advise the dentist with regard to the purchase of replacement parts for the unit (Benjamin v. Campbell Hausfeld, June 28, 2013, Kirk, J.).

Background. The dentist purchased the air compressor, manufactured by Campbell Hausfeld from Lowes and contended that he purchased the air compressor because of the promised “On-site Warranty Service.” When the dentist began experiencing problems with the air compressor, he was told by Lowe’s to return the item to the store. However, because the air compressor was bolted to a concrete slab and was electrically wired, the dentist contracted with a mechanic to assist with the repair work. The mechanic removed the belt guard from the compressor and it was discovered that the belt was frayed. The belt was removed and replaced, but neither the mechanic nor the dentist replaced the belt guard. The dentist used the compressor for a month and began experiencing problems again. He contacted the manufacturer’s customer service department and requested on-site service which was refused. He was told to return the air compressor to the store where it was purchased. When the dentist turned the unit on several days later, he noticed that the belt was not moving. He touched the belt which grabbed his finger at the motor pulley and amputated the end of the phalangeal joint of his left index finger. He brought products liability claims under the LPLA against the manufacturer and the retailer, and the manufacturer moved for summary judgment on the ground that the dentist’s injuries did not arise from a reasonably anticipated use of the product.

Reasonably anticipated use. The LPLA defines reasonably anticipated use as “a use or handling of the product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances.” Reasonably anticipated use was not confined to an ordinary or intended use of the product; it could involve a product user’s negligent conduct if misuse of the product could be reasonably anticipated. The dentist injuries in this case were a result of operating the air compressor without the belt guard. The dentist argued that the manufacturer knew that other consumers were using the air compressor without belt guards, contrary to express warnings. However, the court found that the dentist’s evidence, including a report by his expert witness, notes made in the manufacturer’s customer service log, and the number of replacement belt guards issued during a five-year period were not sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact with respect to whether the manufacturer should have known that its customers were using the air compressor without a belt gauge. Thus the claims against the manufacturer were dismissed.

Retailer’s liability. The dentist claimed that the seller of the unit knew or should have known that the air compressor was defective and had a duty to warn purchasers of the defect. Because the seller did not meet the LPLA’s definition of a manufacturer and the LPLA applies only to manufacturers, the dentist’s only viable claim against the seller were those set forth under theories of negligence. The only evidence offered by the dentist to show that the seller knew or should have known that the air compressor was definitive was a single instance in which a customer complained to the retail store about a belt that malfunctioned after less than two weeks of use. There was no evidence that the customer’s problem was the same as the dentist’s issue with the unit. Furthermore, the report was made more than a year before the dentist’s accident and no other reports were made to the seller by its customers or by the manufacturer. This single report of a malfunctioning belt was not sufficient to put the seller on notice of a defect and, therefore, there was no question of fact as to whether the air compressor was defective or that the retailer knew or should have known of a defect and warned against it.

The court also found that the seller’s employees did not owe the dentist a duty to provide accurate information about where replacement belts could be obtained. It was up to the dentist to make sure he was purchasing the correct belts for the unit.

The case number is: 21:12-cv-00020 (Document 61) and 21:12-cv-00020 (Document 63).

Attorneys: Henry Howard Lemoine, Jr. (Lemoine & Wampler) for Benjamin. Carmelite M. Bertaut (Stone Pigman) for Campbell Hausfeld.

Companies: Campbell Hausfeld; Lowe’s

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