Written by Stephanie G. Cook, Esq.
Edited by Willian J. Pfund, Esq.
In a product liability case tried this year in Roanoke City Circuit Court, the trial judge dismissed a 4.2 million verdict for a plaintiff upon post-trial motions, finding that the evidence established contributory negligence as a matter of law. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the dismissal, but it found in favor of the defendant on the alternative basis that the Estate failed to establish negligent design as a matter of law.
In Evans v. NACCO Materials Handling Group, Inc., 295 Va. 235 (2018), the Estate of a paper plant worker filed suit against the manufacturer of a lift truck after the worker was crushed and killed by the lift truck he had been operating. The deceased worker’s lift truck got stuck between a dock plate and the edge of a trailer he had been loading. He and a co-worker attached a chain to his truck so it could be pulled out by the other lift truck. He applied the parking brake and turned the engine off, but apparently other workers had loosened the brake. The truck was on an incline, and the noise in the plant prevented him from hearing warnings that the truck was rolling towards him. The alarm on the truck did not sound, and chocks were not placed under the wheels. While the deceased worker had received some training on how to operate the truck, he was never certified; and federal law required such certification. The Estate claimed that the parking brake on the lift truck was negligently designed. It also alleged breach of express or implied warranties.
Frederick Mallett testified as an expert for the Estate. He had been an engineer and manager with a competing company that also designed lift trucks. His opinions were that the brake was defectively designed because it could be adjusted by the operator, that only a mechanic should make any adjustments, and that all lift trucks should be taken out of service for any adjustments. He further testified that the design was unreasonably dangerous because it failed to eliminate reasonably foreseeable misuse by the operator. However, he conceded that his previous employer, like NACCO, did not require mechanics to adjust the parking brakes. In addition, he agreed that the brake’s design complied with industry standards.
The Supreme Court of Virginia found that the Estate failed to establish as a matter of law that an “operator-adjustable” brake is unreasonably dangerous. “Whether a plaintiff proceeds under a theory of warranty or negligence, the plaintiff must prove (1) that the goods were unreasonably dangerous either for the use to which they would ordinarily be put or for some other reasonably foreseeable purpose, and (2) that the unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the goods left the defendant’s hands.” Evans, 295 Va. at 246.
The Court found that the brake was not unreasonably dangerous because Mallet never testified that the design violated any government regulations or industry norms. In addition, the Estate failed to present evidence showing that the brake violated objective, reasonable expectations of consumers or users of the product. Specifically, there was no testimony by any other operator of such trucks that the parking brakes should be adjusted by mechanics only. Although an experienced operator testified for the Estate that “nothing good” could come from a brake that “could be adjusted to zero so it holds nothing,” the Court found this testimony was not sufficient to meet the standard required for reasonable user expectations. Id. at 248.
The Court further noted that, even if a jury could conclude that reasonable users or consumers expected a better design which prevented an operator from adjusting the brake, the Estate still failed to prove the ultimate issue – that any alternative design was actually safer than the operator-adjuster park brake. The Court specifically held that “a design is not objectively unreasonable unless the plaintiff can show that an alternative design is safer overall than the design by the manufacturer.” Id. at 249.
There was also testimony that may have permitted the jury to conclude that the Estate’s alternative design would have “reduced the odds of such an accident occurring.” Id. at 250-51. However, the Court found again that such evidence failed to show that the alternative design would result in a safer product overall. The Court concluded there could still be problems with a brake adjustable by a mechanic only. For instance, “some operators and their employers will continue to use trucks with weakened brakes rather than take them out of service and face the potential of unproductive downtime.” Id. at 251.
This decision is important because it reinforces the stringent requirements in other, favorable product liability cases for the defense, namely Hyundai Motor Co. v. Duncan, 289 Va. 147 (2014), and Holiday Motor Corp. v. Walters, 292 Va. 461 (2016). Combined, these cases should make it more difficult for plaintiffs to successfully prove their products liability cases and should always be consulted when dealing with expert testimony in such cases.