Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Court Of Appeals Grants Leave In Products Liability Action

On April 30, 2013, the Court of Appeals granted leave in Hoover v. New Holland North America, Inc., a products liability action involving an alleged design defect.  In Hoover, the sixteen year old plaintiff suffered an above-the-elbow amputation because her coat became tangled on a bolt protruding from a driveline that connected a tractor to an implement used to dig post holes.  The device had been designed with a plastic shield that covered the protruding bolt.  Notably, however, the plastic shield had been removed from the device by its owner (not the plaintiffs) because the shield was “damaged beyond repair during use.”

The jury found that a design defect caused the plaintiff's injuries, and the Appellate Division, Fourth Department affirmed.  The Fourth Department noted that there was sufficient evidence that the protruding bolt was an entanglement hazard and that there were design alternatives that would reduce or eliminate the hazard at only a nominal increase in cost.  The court also rejected defense arguments that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence or that there was insufficient evidence of causation.

With respect to the owner’s removal of the plastic shield, the Fourth Department noted that a manufacturer will not be liable when a safely designed and produced product is substantially altered or modified by a third party.  Nevertheless, the Fourth Department wrote that a modification defeats such a claim only where the modification made a safe product defective and caused the injuries. In that vein, the Fourth Department acknowledged that the device was designed with a plastic shield, but noted that there was sufficient evidence that the shield “could be damaged by normal use or foreseeable misuse.”  Given the evidence concerning the bolt and the shield, the Fourth Department held that “plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence that the digger was defectively designed, and we further conclude that they presented sufficient evidence that [the owner’s] removal of the damaged gearbox shield did not constitute a substantial modification.”

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