7th Circuit: Equipment Maintenance Company Not Liable for Workplace Forklift Injury

In a workplace injury lawsuit relevant to future Indiana work injury claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that a company responsible for equipment maintenance could not be held liable for a forklift injury resulting from failure to warn an employer about the risk of not installing an alarm. There was no question the forklift wasn’t designed, manufactured or shipped to the original purchaser with a backup alarm. Further, as of the date of the accident (in mid-2013) there was no regulation that required the equipment to have one. Defendant did service the forklift several times prior to an accident (during which the heavy machinery rolled over a worker’s foot). The most recent had been just a few months prior. The technician couldn’t recall if the forklift had a backup alarm, but if it did, he didn’t make note of it in his report.

After the accident, the injured worker’s employer asked another company to install a backup alarm. That company’s technician affirmed there was no alarm already on it.

Although workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy a worker has for an Indiana work injury (same goes for workers in Illinois, where this accident occurred), what is allowed is third-party liability. As Munster work injury attorneys can explain, this means that if a third-party – someone other than an employer or co-worker – was responsible for causing an injury that occurred in the course and scope of  employment, that party can be held liable for negligence. Workers aren’t compensated twice, but a third-party negligence claim may entitle injured workers to collect more than they would otherwise be able to collect from workers’ compensation (which is generally limited to a portion of lost wages and medical bills).

Defective Forklift Injuries 

Forklifts are large pieces of heavy machinery that can cause serious work injuries in Indiana. Forklifts that are defectively-designed or manufactured may be cause for a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer/distributor of the product. Forklifts that are not properly maintained may point to liability by the owner (if different from employer) and/or the service/maintenance company, as was the case in the 7th Circuit ruling.

Each year, an estimated 35,000 workers in the U.S. are injured and another 85 killed in forklift accidents.

In recent years, OSHA has cited or fined companies for faulty forklifts including those that:

  • Had faulty brakes due to failure to perform needed repairs;
  • Put workers at risk of CO poisoning (an Illinois-based manufacturer was fined $216,000 last year by OSHA for allowing workers to operate defective forklifts emitting 10 times the accepted permissible exposure limit);
  • Was unsafely loaded or driven, leading to tipping and crushing injuries.

Forklifts are considered “powered industrial trucks” which are regulated per 29 CFR 1910.178.

Court Rules Forklift Maintenance Firm Not Liable

In its decision regarding liability of a forklift maintenance firm, the 7th Circuit panel noted it was the employer – not the service company – that had the final decision on whether a backup alarm should be installed. The repair company’s duty to warn (necessary to prove negligence) didn’t require that it recommend an optional safety feature, particularly when the owner of the forklift was already aware of the safety feature (which was established in discovery).

Plaintiff failed to establish that even if there was a duty of care that there was a breach. Simply knowing about a risk – one that the owner also knows about – doesn’t create an affirmative duty of care requiring the repair service to recommend installation of a device that was neither required nor requested.

Although this outcome is disappointing for the plaintiff, it’s instructive for Munster personal injury attorneys and others handling work injury claims in Indiana.

Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

Hutchison v. Fitzgerald Equipment Co., Dec. 14, 2018, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Gary Truck Accident Lawsuit Claims Trucking Company Negligent, July 17, 2017, Munster Work Injury Attorney Blog

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