Thursday, November 11, 2010

Northern California Judge Denies Strict Liability for Baler Manufacturer

Northern California Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte granted summary judgment for Excel Manufacturing Company (Excel) against Juan Dominguez but denied a product negligence claim allowing the action to proceed to trial, but foreclosing Mr. Dominguez's opportunity to recover punitive damages.

Pleasant Paper Recycling Company employed Mr. Dominguez where he used a horizontal baler manufactured by Excel.  On April 25, 2008 some aluminum cans blocked the feed chamber.  Mr. Dominguez left the baler in "automatic" instead of placing it into "manual" despite knowing this was dangerous, climbed into the feed chamber and, in the process of unblocking the feed chamber, his leg was caught in the feed chamber and crushed.  After the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal. OSHA) investigated the machine but before either side's expert could evaluate the machine, the owner of Pleasant Paper shipped the baler back to China.  Mr. Dominguez sued Excel, the maker of the baler for strict product liability and for negligence.

Judge Laporte explained that a manufacturer is strictly liable for resulting injuries from a product where the risk of the design (including posted warnings) outweighs the benefits.  The defendant's expert has (unsurprisingly) testified that the bailer had no design defects.  The present motion for partial summary judgment turns on the plaintiff's expert Kenneth Smith.

Excel argues that Mr. Smith has never tested or designed safety devices for balers and has no basis of knowledge for determining whether this particular baler had adequate safety features.  Therefore, his suggestions for safety improvements were created in litigation and were not subject to peer review.  Similarly, Cal. OSHA standards cannot be used to demonstrate design flaws.  Judge Laporte agreed and found the testimony inadmissible.  She granted summary judgment on the products liability claim.

However, the same evidence that is not available to show alternate product designs for the strict liability claim can be used to show standard of care in the negligence claim. Robertson v. Burlington Northern R. Co. (9th Cir. 1994) (courts can use Cal. OSHA standards to determine standard of care, but a violation is not negligence per se).  Judge Laporte allowed the negligence claim to survive summary judgment.

The case is Dominguez v. Excel Manufacturing Co. No. C 09-3611 and the opinion is below the jump.

Dominguez v. Excel Manufacturing MSJ

No comments:

Post a Comment