An Indiana man who lost an eye and suffered a number of other serious facial injuries when a power tool he was using malfunctioned and struck him in the face may proceed with his Indiana product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of that tool, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled. In so doing, the appellate court reversed the trial judge’s earlier grant of summary judgment to the defense.
The plaintiff’s original claim to the trial court was that the product’s faulty instructions, inadequate warnings, and lack of a safety guard (or any explicit information regarding a proper safety guard) made the air-compressor tool unreasonably dangerous as manufactured. The defense countered that no reasonable jury could find the plaintiff less than 51 percent at fault for his injuries (the standard under Indiana’s comparative fault law), given each of the three defenses presented: misuse, alteration, and incurred risk. Specifically, the defense argued the plaintiff misused the product and altered the product, and there was an incurred risk for the use of the product.
The trial court ruled the plaintiff misused the grinder as a matter of law because he did not wear safety glasses. In the plaintiff’s appeal, he noted that the power tool was defective because it was sold without a safety guard, and the company gave no instruction on how to obtain or use such a guard, which was not and is not available for purchase by the company. Furthermore, the plaintiff argued the instructions didn’t warn users of the possible danger of using the tool with a cut-off wheel absent a safety guard.
Indiana Code section 34-20-2-1 holds that a product can be defective within the meaning of the Indiana Product Liability Act when there is a manufacturing flaw, a design flaw, or a failure to warn of the possible dangers in using the product. The plaintiff’s claim falls under the umbrella of the latter two.
It is true that Indiana’s comparative fault law does apply to product liability cases, which means the plaintiff’s own fault in causing the harm suffered can result in a reduction of damages – or the dismissal of the claim if his fault exceeds 51 percent. Alleged misuse of a product falls under the comparative fault principles, but it isn’t a complete defense. In this case, the defendant argued the plaintiff misused the tool by not wearing proper safety glasses, attaching and using a cutoff disc without a guard in place, and using a cutoff disc that didn’t have a solid RPM rating. The defense argued this was against the instructions it provided within the product, which the plaintiff testified he’d read before using it.
It wasn’t disputed that the plaintiff didn’t wear safety glasses, although he testified he thought his eyeglasses were sufficient protection. They were not, but as the appellate court ruled, his percentage of fault in that needs to be weighed by a jury, rather than decided by a judge as a matter of law in summary judgment. Furthermore, with regard to using the cutoff disc absent a guard, the court noted the company clearly foresaw that the tool would be used this way because it included an instruction warning individuals not to use a cutoff disc on the tool “unless safety guard is in place.” However, the tool didn’t contain a safety guard, indicate how to obtain a safety guard, or even define it. Furthermore, the company didn’t designate this “instruction” as any kind of warning that would alert the user that they should pay special attention to it.
The appellate panel ruled that based on the statutory defenses it asserted, the company wasn’t entitled to summary judgment.
If you have been injured as a result of a defective power tool or other equipment, our Indiana product liability attorneys can help you identify all possible avenues for financial compensation.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.
Campbell Hausefeld v. Johnson, Dec. 29, 2017, Indiana Court of Appeals
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