California appeal court sides with defendants in product liability case against The Raymond Co.

By David Hutton | Jul 31, 2017

SAN DIEGO (Legal Newsline) – California’s 4th District Court of Appeal has overturned a grant of summary judgment in a product liability case.

In its June 21 opinion, the appeals court ruled The Raymond Co. did not meet its burden of establishing that the risk-benefit test applies to defeat claims made by Kawika and Sandra Demara.

The Demaras appealed summary judgment granted in favor of defendants The Raymond Corp. and Raymond Handling Solutions Inc. (RHSI).

The lawsuit stems from injuries Kawika Demara allegedly sustained as a result of design defects in a forklift designed by Raymond and sold by RHSI.

In granting summary judgment, the Superior Court of San Diego County ruled the Demaras did not establish a triable issue of material fact as to causation. The court also stated that the consumer expectation test did not apply as a matter of law; and for purposes of applying the risk-benefit test, even if the Demaras had shown a triable issue of material fact as to causation, The Raymond Co. and RHSI established the requisite elements for the application of the risk-benefit

Writing the opinion, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell maintained that the trial court erred in these rulings because the Demaras' demonstration of causation was more than just negligible and was sufficient to beat summary judgment.

“In applying the risk-benefit test, the defendants failed to present sufficient evidence to shift the burden to plaintiffs to show a triable issue of material fact,” McConnell wrote.

Kawika Demara was injured on Sept. 29, 2011, at a warehouse in Carlsbad, California.

The warehouse was noisy with several lifts in operation, including the Raymond 7400 series, the opinion states.

According to the opinion, the Raymond 7400 series lift was backing up, changing direction and turning to the left with its left rear corner out in front. As the lift continued its left turn in reverse, the drive wheel — which is located in the left rear corner of the lift and was thus leading the turn — ran over Demara's right foot, crushing it.

Demara allegedly did not see the lift or its warning light. As a result of the injury, Demara has had numerous surgeries on his foot and remains permanently disabled and in pain.

In a single cause of action for products liability, the Demaras alleged two counts — one for strict liability based on claims for defects in the manufacture, design and warnings, and one for negligence.

Citing Campbell v. General Motors Corp., under both the consumer expectation test and the risk-benefit test, in proving a cause of action for design defect, the plaintiff must establish that the product's failure to perform safely was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiff. 

In seeking summary judgment, The Raymond Co. and RHSI stated that the Demaras could not establish that the design of the forklift was a substantial factor in causing harm to Kawika Demara.

“Defendants presented neither evidence nor inferences from evidence that suggest that the design was not a substantial factor in bringing about Demara's injury,” McConnell wrote in the opinion. 

“Because the defendants' statement that the occurrence of the accident was not evidence of a defect that caused the plaintiff’s injuries is not a prima facie showing that plaintiffs cannot prove causation, the burden of establishing a triable issue of material fact never shifted to plaintiffs, and the trial court should not have granted defendants' motion on the basis that plaintiffs did not meet their burden of establishing a triable issue of material fact as to causation.” 

In its opinion, the court noted that the Demaras pointed out that the area on the outside of the drive wheel of 7400 series is open, with no guard, gates, skirts or bumpers; as the leading edge of the lift swung into Demara, his foot went under the lift and was crushed by the exposed wheel.

It also noted that the 7400 series lift had a flashing light attached to the top of the metal guard above the driver's compartment; at certain close distances, the light on the overhead guard was not visible to, and was thus ineffective as a warning light for, pedestrians. 

Both the Demaras and Raymond and RHSI filed objections to some of the evidence submitted by the other party.

“However, the trial court never ruled on the plaintiffs' objections, and the court did not have jurisdiction at the time it ruled on defendants' objections,” McConnell wrote. “As a result, the record contains no evidentiary rulings that we can review on appeal.”

In reversing the judgment, the case is remanded to the trial court with instructions to enter an order denying the motion for summary judgment by the Raymond Co. and RHSI, denying their motion for summary adjudication of the Demaras' claims for negligence and for defective design, and granting the Demaras' motion for summary adjudication of the companies’ claims for defective manufacturing and for failure to warn.

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