U.S. Court of Appeals Vacates Summary Judgment as to Defective-Design Claim in Product Liability Lawsuit

Scott Weigle and John Moore, two mechanics, were working on a trailer from a semi-truck. Weigle and Moore had considerable experience as mechanics working at a trucking repair company.

On July 31, 2009, Weigle and Moore were about to do a job to rebuild the braking system on a semi-truck trailer.  They used an airlift to raise the rear portion of the trailer and then lowered the trailer onto two support stands.  Weigle had already begun work on the trailer when Moore came over to help.  The trailer moved as both mechanics were working underneath, causing the support stands to tip over and the trailer came crashing down on the two men.  Both Weigle and Moore suffered serious injuries.

The two support stands were designed by the company SPX.  These support stands consist of a conical base, an extension tube and a support pin. 

On the parts list and operating instructions, there was a safety precaution to use the support pin, which must be completely inserted through the support stand extension tube.  There were other various warnings for use of the product. 

It was undisputed that Weigle and Moore did not use the support pin on the day of the incident. Weigle took care of situating the trailer onto the support stand and admitted that he never read the “parts list and operating instructions.”  Moore, on the other hand, did say he read all the instructions and warnings, but did not inspect the support stand to see if the support pins were in place.

The defendant SPX moved for summary judgment. Based on the evidence in the case, the federal judge granted SPX’s summary judgment on all claims, which included failure to warn and for the defective design allegations.  Weigle and Moore then took this appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. 

The district court held that the instructions and warnings were adequate as a matter of law. As to the defective-design claims, the court did not address the sufficiency of Weigle’s and Moore’s designated evidence. The district court judge concluded that because the warnings were adequate, the support stands were neither defective nor unreasonably dangerous. The appeals court agreed that the warnings were sufficient and thus the plaintiffs had failed to establish that SPX breached its duty to warn, but it decided differently on the claim of unreasonably dangerous product. 

The appeals court also said that a second way a product can be in a defective condition is “if, at the time it is conveyed by the seller to another party, it is in a condition:  (1) not contemplated by reasonable persons among those considered expected users or consumers of the product; and (2) that will be unreasonably dangerous to the expected user or consumer when used in reasonably expectable ways of handling or consumption.”  Ind. Code §34-20-4-1.   

Defective-design claims sound in negligence. A party alleging a design defect “must establish that the manufacturer or seller failed to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances in designing the product. A plaintiff claiming a defective design as a result of negligence must allege and prove that the defendant failed or chose not to ‘take precautions that are less expensive than the net costs of accidents.’”  McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic, 150 F.3d at 657.

Furthermore, in establishing that the product was in a defective condition due to negligence, a defective-design plaintiff must establish that the defective condition rendered the product “unreasonably dangerous.”

The court of appeals also stated that a reasonable fact finder could determine from Weigle’s and Moore’s designated evidence that the SPX support stands at issue were in a defective condition that was unreasonably dangerous. The SPX support stands were different than most others on the market. Because the SPX stands were inherently unstable and used without the pin, but other available stands are not because of built-in safeguards, a fact finder could find that the stands were unreasonably dangerous. 

Accordingly, the district court’s summary judgments are affirmed in part and vacated in part (as to the unreasonably dangerous defect claim) and remanded for further proceedings at the trial level. 

Scott Weigle, John Moore, II, et al., Nos. 12-3024, 12-3025 (7th Cir., September 6, 2013).  

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling product liability cases, pharmaceutical injury cases, work injuries and construction site accidents for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Chicago (Calumet Heights, Hyde Park, Midway Airport, West Lawn, Wrightwood), Alsip, Chicago Ridge, Bridgeview, Bedford Park, Evergreen Park, Riverdale, Calumet City and Midlothian, Ill.

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