New York recognizes three types of strict product liability: manufacturing defects, design defects, and failures to warn. A manufacturing defect results from an error in the manufacturing process that makes an otherwise safe product dangerous. A design defect occurs when the product, manufactured as designed, is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. A failure to warn occurs when a manufacturer either fails to warn or provides inadequate warnings of reasonably foreseeable risks.
In the recent case of D’Amico v. Rondo, Inc., the plaintiff was injured while using a dough sheeter at a bakery. Dough sheeters compress dough into sheets with uniform thickness. The dough sheeter in question was a table-top unit with two conveyor tables on either side of the center unit, where the rollers compress the dough. There are safety guards over the conveyor tables when they are down. The machine can be stored in an upright “V” configuration. There is a plastic piece that is intended to engage with a cutout in the metal safety guard to latch the conveyor table in the upright position.
The plaintiff had used the machine at least a dozen times before her injury. Before the incident, the plaintiff put the conveyor tables in the upright position and thought she latched them. While she was cleaning the work bench, one of the conveyor tables fell and hit her on the head.
The next morning, the plaintiff’s supervisor inspected the latching mechanism and did not find any problems. The supervisor had used the machine hundreds of times and had not heard of another incident of a conveyor table coming unlatched and falling without anyone touching it.
The plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer and distributor on design defect and failure to warn claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment.
In New York, a plaintiff makes a prima facie case for a design defect if she shows that the defendant breached the duty to market safe products by marketing a product that was not reasonably safe and that the design defect was a substantial factor in the plaintiff’s injury. The plaintiff also has the burden of showing that a safer design was feasible.
According to the plaintiff’s expert, the “V” design and the type of latches were both defects. The expert opined that the latch could be “precariously perched,” or placed so that the plastic piece could slip past the cutout in the safety guard. In his opinion, the plaintiff’s description of what occurred was “consistent” with precarious perching.
The defendants argued that the expert’s test, which involved manipulating the latching mechanism to test if it could partially engage, was unforeseeable misuse. The court found that a reasonable jury could infer that the latch could fail if the conveyor was moved into the upright position or misused in a foreseeable way. The defendants also argued that the evidence of precarious perching at the time of the incident was speculative. The defendants argued that the expert was the only person who had seen precarious perching on the machine, and the defendants’ expert had testified that precarious perching would only occur if someone balanced the latching components as the plaintiff’s expert had. This issue, however, was one of credibility, weighing the evidence, and drawing inferences, which are functions of the jury. Summary judgment, therefore, was not appropriate for the design defect claim.
To prove a failure to warn, the plaintiff must show the manufacturer had a duty to warn about dangers arising from foreseeable uses that it knew or should have known about and that the failure to warn proximately caused the injury. The court noted that the adequacy of warnings is generally a fact question for the jury and not appropriate for summary judgment.
The plaintiff alleged that the defendants failed to warn that the conveyor could fall and injure a person, that the user should make sure the components of the latch mechanism were closely mated when the conveyor table was upright, and that the user should contact customer service if they are not. The defendants argued that the plaintiff had only identified a danger related to unforeseeable misuse and that there was no evidence of precarious perching at the time of the incident. The court, however, found that whether the warnings were adequate was a question for the jury and denied summary judgment.
As this case shows, to prevail in a summary judgment motion, a defendant must show that there is no triable issue of fact. Often, when the parties’ experts disagree on the existence of a defect, the court will find an issue of fact. As noted by the court, failure to warn cases generally will not be subject to summary judgment.
If you have been injured by a defective product, you need a skilled New York personal injury attorney to determine which type of defect exists and how to present your claim.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673.
D’Amico v. Rondo, Inc., January 25, 2016, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York
More Blog Entries:
CPSC Fight Highlights Risk of Defective Product Injuries in New York, August 10, 2013, New York Injury Lawyer Blog