Friday, February 9, 2007

Rodeheaver v. CNH America, LLC (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Not Approved for Publication)

Issued February 7, 2007 -- Opinion by Judge Richard Bennet. Not approved for publication.

This is a products liability case in which plaintiff alleged injury as a result of a defective tractor. Plaintiff sought relief under strict liability, negligence, and breach of implied warranty. The United States District Court granted summary judgment for both defendants.

On June 8, 2004, plaintiff purchased a tractor manufactured by defendant CNH. On August 17, 2004, plaintiff was using the tractor on a dirt road near his property. In the course of doing so, he set the parking brake, set the transmission to neutral, and got off the tractor. Shortly thereafter, he noticed that the tractor was rolling away from him. He chased after the tractor trying to stop it, but was caught underneath it. Plaintiff suffered multiple injuries to his back and ribs. Despite the injuries, he continued to use the tractor for three months, or 58.5 actual hours, before he had the vehicle inspected. In January 2005, the tractor was inspected and the brakes were adjusted.

The current case was filed on August 24, 2005, and Motions for Summary Judgment were filed by the defendants on April 18, 2006 and April 19, 2006.

The court first and set forth the standard of review, explaining that summary judgment is appropriate when there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is plainly entitled to judgment in his favor as a matter of law."

The court then applied the standard to the current facts. The court first analyzed the counts for strict liability. The elements of strict liability are, "(1) the product was a defective condition at the time that it left the possession or control of the seller, (2) that it was unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer, (3) that the defect was a cause of the injuries, and (4) that the product was expected to win did reach the consumer without substantial change in its condition."

A product can be defective in three separate ways: design, manufacturing, and failure to warn. The defect can be proven a three different ways, "(1) direct proof based on the nature of the accident in the context of the particular product involved; (2) circumstantial proof based on an inference of a defect from a way of several factors; [or] (3) director for to prove through a pain testimony by an expert witness in." The court can consider the following factors, "(1) expert opinion as to possible causes for the accident, (2) cost it after the sale of the product the accident occurred, (3) whether the same accident occurred in similar products, (4) the absence of other causes for the accident, and (5) whether the accident was one that does not occur without a defect." In this case, plaintiff claimed a design defect. The court concluded that plaintiff had not offered sufficient evidence as to whether the brake was actually defective to present the case to a jury. The court found that there was no reliable evidence of the condition of the brakes at the time of the incident.

The court then considered whether the tractor was unreasonably dangerous to plaintiff as its operator. An unreasonably dangerous product is "one which is dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics." Courts also weigh "the utility of the risk inherent in its design against the magnitude of the risk." The court found that the tractor was not unreasonably dangerous to plaintiff as its operator because plaintiff "was able to use the tractor without difficulty before the accident and continue to use it even after the accident." The court was also persuaded by the fact that plaintiff failed to heed two of the four warnings in the tractor's manual and warning labels. The court was also cognizant of the fact that plaintiff continued to use the tractor for approximately 100 hours even after the accident occurred. This suggested to the court that under the balancing act of utility of the risk against the magnitude of the risk, plaintiff had failed to meet his burden.

The court then went on to examine the issue of causation. The court determined that the true causation of the injuries was plaintiff attempting to get back on the tractor after he saw it moving away from him. This attempt was a superseding intervening cause of plaintiff's injuries.

The court also determined that plaintiff misused the tractor by failing to heed all of the warnings to be found in the owners' manual and all the warning labels. Misuse is not an affirmative defense to a claim for strict products liability, but it does "negate a design defect claim."

For the reasons set forth above, the court also granted the motions for summary judgment on the ordinary negligence claims. Moreover, plaintiff was contributorily negligent in chasing after the tractor.

For similar reasons, the court granted summary judgment to the defendants on plaintiff's claims of res ipsa loquitur and breach of implied warranty of merchantability.

This opinion is available in PDF.

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