Products liability claims get a boost from Minnesota's Supreme Court

By Dee Thompson | Aug 25, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) – The Minnesota Supreme Court last month revived a lawsuit brought by a farm worker who had his legs crushed by a machine - even though he was working on the machine without having read its manual and had received no instruction on how to perform the repair he was attempting.

Three justices who voted in the minority wrote that it was not reasonable for the manufacturer of the machine to expect that the safety device installed on it would be disabled and "that an employee would violate multiple safety regulations in using the machine."

The sharply divided Minnesota Supreme Court departed from the norm when it decided the case, an attorney told Legal Newsline

“The decision marks a departure from Minnesota law, which is why the court was so sharply divided," Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Deborah J. LaFetra said.

The case of Nereus Montemayor v. Sebright Products Inc., previously reported by Legal Newslinewas decided in the Minnesota Supreme Court on July 12. Montemayor, a farm worker, was injured while trying to clear a jam from an extruder manufactured by Sebright Products Inc. 

Montemayor had not read the machine’s operation manual when another worker started the machine and crushed Montemayor’s legs while Montemayor was trying to correct the problem, his complaint stated.

Montemayor filed a products liability case in which he alleged there were design defects in the manufacture of the extruder and that Sebright was liable for a failure to warn consumers.

In writing about the case, LaFetra noted that both the trial court and the appellate court granted summary judgment to the defendant Sebright because a manufacturer’s warning on a product puts users on notice that an injury is possible, and the manufacturer is typically not then liable for subsequent injuries. 

“Here, the extruder functioned as designed and the existing warnings—as well as common sense—should have sufficed to keep workers outside of a crushing machine (nicknamed 'the smasher') still connected to its power supply,” she noted on the Pacific Legal Foundation's Liberty Blog.

However, the Minnesota Supreme Court decision reversed the lower court rulings. In a 4-3 split decision, the majority concluded that the question of whether a manufacturer should have warned of injury in the case of the equipment being misused was too close of a question to uphold the lower court’s conclusions.

The possible implications for manufacturers of equipment are staggering. 

“A rule requiring manufacturers to bear the cost of deliberate and egregious product misuse results in products engineered to guard against phantom risks at the expense of utility, encourages careless behavior, and forces careful users to bear the costs of other individuals’ irresponsible actions. Limiting liability to cases where the product is actually defective, not merely capable of being egregiously misused, underscores the fact that society generally favors the manufacture and use of products” LaFetra noted in her blog post.

The Minnesota decision stands in sharp contrast to other states in other courts.

“Multiple courts hold that where the danger is obvious (such as inserting body parts into crushing machines without disconnecting the power) the manufacturer is not liable," LaFetra said. 

"The district court in Minnesota held that the risk to a machine operator’s fingers by an industrial laminator was open and obvious. A New York court held that the potential of being crushed by a steam-powered forging hammer was similarly obvious, negating any duty to warn. Florida courts have held the same regarding a wood chipper and a press brake (a crushing machine)."

LaFetra feels the impact of the Minnesota decision is that it will invite more products liability litigation. 

“The decision certainly encourages tort litigation in Minnesota because it stands as an invitation for workers to circumvent workers’ comp to get to deep-pocketed manufacturers who now are expected to design fool-proof and accident-proof industrial machines,” she said.

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