By: Richard E. Guttentag, Esq., Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, L.L.C.

A manufacturer is not strictly liable for all injuries caused by its product. In Hernandez v. Altec Environmental Products, LLC, 2012 WL 4511341 (S.D.Fla. 2012), an employee of Asplundh Tree Expert Co. (“Asplundh”) suffered a significant injury to his hand while he was in the process of clearing debris underneath a wood chipper which was being operated without the safety guard covering the in-feed roller.  The employee was aware that the safety cover on the wood chipper had been removed from the chipper at the time of the accident.  Altec Environmental Products, LLC (“AEP”) designed, manufactured and sold the subject wood chipper to Asplundh.  Consequently, the employee and his wife (“Plaintiffs”) brought several claims against Altec Environmental Products, LLC (“AEP”) and others, including a claim of strict product liability with respect to the design of the wood chipper.  AEP filed a motion for summary judgment against the Plaintiffs, in part, on the grounds that Plaintiffs’ had not produced evidence to support their claim for strict liability with respect to design of the wood chipper.

In order to hold a manufacturer liable on a theory of strict liability, the user of the product must prove that a product produced by a manufacturer was defective or created an unreasonably dangerous condition that proximately caused the injury.

Plaintiffs alleged that AEP owed them a duty to use reasonable care in the designing, manufacturing, testing, inspecting, maintaining, repairing, providing warnings and instructions for and replacing the subject wood chipper so that the chipper could be safely used in a manner for the purpose for which it was made. Plaintiffs further argued that the foreseeable risk of harm posed by the wood chipper could have been reduced by applying an alternative design for the safety cover. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that because the chipper utilized a bolted-on guard to cover the in-feed roller as opposed to a more easily detachable cover, it was unreasonably difficult and time consuming for workers to remove and then replace the cover, encouraging workers to remove the guard and not re-attached it – an allegedly foreseeable event. The Court disagreed with the Plaintiffs’ argument.

A manufacturer is not strictly liable for all injuries caused by its product. In order for strict liability to apply to a manufacturer, the manufactured product at issue must have been used as intended. If the manufactured product is not used as intended strict liability does not apply.

The Court held that a manufacturer cannot be strictly liable for failing to modify a design of a product that when used as directed was not harmful or dangerous, but when foreseeably misused or put to an unintended use could be found to be unreasonably dangerous.  The court explained that the wood chipper was designed and manufactured with a safety cover, and was reasonably safe for consumer use so long as the safety cover remained in place.  Thus, the Court concluded that the fact the safety guard could be, and in this instance was removed from the wood chipper, resulting in the employee being injured, does not render the machine unreasonably dangerous because a manufacturer is under no duty to produce a fail-safe product, so long as the product poses no unreasonable dangers for consumer use.  As the Court pointed out, even the employee conceded this point by stating that had the cover been in place, the accident would not have occurred. Therefore, since Plaintiffs did not produce any evidence that the wood chipper was defectively designed, or, as a result of its design, created an unreasonably dangerous condition, the court granted summary judgment in favor of AEP and dismissed the Plaintiffs’ claim against AEP for strict liability as to the design defects.

This case demonstrates that in order to hold a manufacturer of a product liable on a theory of strict liability, it must be proved that the product produced by a manufacturer created an unreasonably dangerous condition that proximately caused injury while the product was being used as intended.

About the Author: Richard E. Guttentag is a partner with Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, L.L.C., and is Board Certified in Construction Law by the Florida Bar. Mr. Guttentag exclusively in construction law including construction lien claims and defense, payment and performance bond claims and defense, bid protests, construction contract preparation and negotiation, and construction and design defect claims and defense. He can be reached for consultation at [email protected].

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