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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 10, 2013

Warnings on truck-trailer support stands adequate; issue of defective design must go to jury

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The warnings and instructions provided by the manufacturer of a support stand used during repair and maintenance on truck trailers were adequate as a matter of law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held, affirming the district court’s decision on this issue (Weigle v. SPX Corp., September 4, 2013, Fitzsimmons, H.). However, the adequacy of the warnings did not provide a complete defense to defective design claims filed by two mechanics who were injured when a semi-truck trailer moved off the support stands and crashed onto them.

Background. Two experienced mechanics, Scott Weigle and John Moore, had positioned the back end of a semi-truck trailer on two support stands so they could rebuild its braking system. Somehow, the trailer moved, causing the support stands to tip over and crash down on the two mechanics who were working underneath it. The support stands, which had been designed and manufactured by SPX Corporation, included an extension tube so users could adjust the height by inserting a support pin in the appropriate hole on the extension tube. If the support pin was not used, the extension tube would touch the ground, causing the support stand to become unstable because the weight of the load would not be distributed to the stand’s broad conical base but instead would rest almost entirely on the narrow extension tube. It was undisputed that the mechanics did not use the support pin on the day of the accident, and the mechanic who situated the trailer onto the support stands admitted that he never read the operating instructions or the warning decal affixed to each support stand. The second mechanic had read all the instructions and warnings but, on the day of the accident, he did not inspect the support stands to see if the support pins were in place. Both mechanics brought inadequate warnings and defective design claims against the manufacturer under the Indiana Product Liability Act (IPLA). The district court determined that the warnings were adequate as a matter of law and that, as a result, the support stands were not defective under Indiana law. The workers appealed.

Adequacy of warnings. The court agreed with the manufacturer’s argument that the warnings and instructions provided in the operator’s manual and on the support stands clearly informed users that the support pins were always to be used and that failure to use them could result in personal injury. In rejecting the mechanics’ argument that the warnings were not sufficient because they failed to explain the significance of the support pin in maintaining the stability of the jack stand, the court noted that there was no Indiana authority supporting their view that the manufacturer was required to explain the mechanics of the support pins. The manufacturer’s instruction was neither permissive nor equivocal. It clearly conveyed to the user that failure to use the support pin could result in personal injury caused by the load falling off the support stands. Additional warnings were not required when they would not supplement the user’s understanding of the nature and characteristics of the product or where they would lead to warnings that were too technical or confusing, which could, in turn, make the warning inadequate.

Defective design. The court went on to find that the determination that the warnings were adequate did not relieve the manufacturer of liability as a matter of law for alleged defects in the design of the support stands. According to the court, a reasonable fact finder could determine from the evidence that the stands were in a defective condition that was unreasonably dangerous. Specifically, there was evidence that the manufacturer’s support stands differed from most others on the market in allowing the center column to drop all the way to the ground. In addition, because the stands were inherently unstable when used without the pin, while other stands are not, it could be concluded that the design was not contemplated by expected users. A fact finder could also determine that because it was foreseeable that stands would be used without the pin in place, failure to take the minor precaution of building in a safeguard that would prevent the extension tube from dropping below the lowest position demonstrated that the manufacturer failed to exercise reasonable care in designing the support stands. Finally, the lack of any evidence that the manufacturer undertook a hazard-risk or failure-mode analysis and the dispute over whether the design of the stands complied with industry standard raised a question of fact as to whether the stands were defectively designed.

Adequate warnings as defense. The court rejected the manufacturer’s argument and the district court’s conclusion that the determination that the warnings were adequate relieved the manufacturer of liability as a matter of law for the alleged defects in the design of the support stands. The district court had concluded that based on Indiana case law, the presence of adequate warnings rendered the support stands non-defective and not unreasonably dangerous. The mechanics argued that the cited decision, Marshall v. Clark Equipment Co., 690 N.E.2d 1102 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), was inconsistent with current Indiana law. The appeals court predicted that the Indiana Supreme Court, which had not ruled on this issue, would not apply the holding in Marshall to the defective design claims in this case for several reasons. First, the IPLA did not provide a defense or a presumption that adequate warnings rendered a product not defective and not unreasonably dangerous. The manufacturer’s contention that a manufacturer should not have to design safer products if it provides adequate warnings was inconsistent with the standard of care for product design set forth in the IPLA. The court went on to clarify that the provision of adequate warnings remained relevant to a design defect case under the principles of comparative fault and, therefore, any failure on the part of the mechanics to read and heed the manufacturer’s warnings and instructions should be considered by the jury in allocating fault.

Misuse of product. The court also determined that the manufacturer was not entitled to summary judgment on its misuse defense because the mechanics had presented evidence from which the fact finder could determine that use of the support stands without the pin was reasonably foreseeable. The designer of the support stands admitted at deposition that it was foreseeable that a user might operate the support stand without the pin, which is why the instruction that the pin should always be used had been included in the manual. In addition, misuse was not a complete defense but was an aspect of comparative fault which was classically a determination for the fact finder.

The case number is: 12-3024.

Attorneys: Lawrence M. Hansen (Hansen Law Firm, LLC) for Weigle and Moore. Mark D. Gerth (Kightlinger & Gray LLP) for SPX Corporation.

Companies: SPX Corporation

MainStory: TopStory WarningsNews DesignManufacturingNews DefensesLiabilityNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews IllinoisNews IndianaNews WisconsinNews

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