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New York's highest court reverses $1 million ruling involving death of Bobcat skid steer operator

Lawsuits

By Takesha Thomas | May 22, 2019


ALBANY, N.Y. (Legal Newsline) – The New York Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court's ruling that found a rental center and equipment manufacturer liable for a man's death after he rented a Bobcat skid steer loader.

On May 9, the state's highest court opined that Bobcat of Long Island Inc. and Bobcat Co. should be given a new trial. Chief Judge Janet Marie DiFiore ruled that Port Jefferson Rental Center should not be held liable under a product liability rule for design defects. 

The seven-judge panel, with the exception of Judge Jenny Rivera, concurred that a new trial should be heard based on the manufacturer's liability rule.

The panel considered if there is an exception to a general rule of strict products liability for design defects if the allegedly defective product "came into the injured end user’s hands through the rental market, rather than by a purchase transaction," the ruling states.

"We conclude that no such 'rental market' exclusion from Scarangella v. Thomas Built Buses (93 NY2d 655 [1999]) is appropriate, and that jury instructions incorporating the rental market theory espoused by plaintiff’s expert were misleading and incompatible with governing precedent," DiFiore wrote. 

The family of Elias Fasolas brought suit against Bobcat and Port Jefferson Rental Center after Fasalos was killed while operating a Bobcat S-175 skid steer loader with a bucket attachment, the ruling states. The ruling states Fasolas was killed when a tree entered the cab and crushed him. 

The family brought suit against Port Jefferson Rental Center for renting the loader and for allegedly not warning Fasalos about potential hazards with the loader. Bobcat was sued for manufacturing the product and allegations of a defective design element. 

"Bobcat’s theory was that Fasolas misused the product by attempting to plow over or dig up trees, which was not a proper use of the loader with bucket attachment. The manufacturer’s employees explained that different attachments for the loader are available for leveling trees and include the door kit as a standard feature to prevent airborne material from entering the cab," the ruling states.

A jury found Bobcat and Taylor liable on the defective design theory and awarded Fasalos' family $1 million in damages. The jury found that Port Jefferson's "warnings were defective and that its training of the deceased was inadequate," the ruling states.

Rivera wrote she would affirm the lower court's ruling instead of granting a new trial.

"Here, the evidence did not establish that the person in the best position to balance the risk and benefits of the product’s use without the safety device—the renter—had such knowledge, or that the manufacturer took steps when entering the rental equipment market to ensure the renter would receive the information necessary to engage in a risk utility analysis, even if the manufacturer did not have direct access to the renter," Rivera wrote. 

"Therefore, the question of the manufacturer’s strict liability, based on its introduction into the rental market of its machinery without the safety device, was properly submitted and charged to the jury. A new trial is not warranted, and I would affirm the order of the Appellate Division."

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