Justices: Proven misuse a defense to product liability claims

The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the grant of summary judgment to a tool manufacturer sued after a man lost his eye while using one of the manufacturer’s products, finding the man’s misuse of the tool in question was the cause of his injuries and was a complete defense to his product liability claim.

The justices unanimously restored the grant of summary judgment to Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Company on Paul Johnson’s defective design claim Thursday in Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Company v. Paul Johnson, 18S-CT-548. The Indiana Court of Appeals had reversed the Porter Superior Court’s grant of partial summary judgment to Campbell Hausfeld, but the justices agreed with the trial court’s decision.

The case began when Johnson purchased a mini air die grinder from Campbell Hausfeld and used it to help a friend do some work on the headlights on a truck. The grinder came with various instructions, including instructions to wear safety glasses, to only use attachments that were rated for a minimum of 25,000 RPM and not to use a cut-off disc mandrel on the grinder without a safety guard. The instructions also warned of the risk of personal injury if the user did not follow the prescribed safety protocols.

Despite those warnings, Johnson used a mandrel to attach a cut-off disc, which was rated lower than 25,000 RPM. Further, he wore only his prescription glasses as he used the grinder. The cut-off disc eventually came apart and struck the left side of Johnson’s face, causing him to lose his left eye.

Johnson sued Campbell Hausfeld, raising failure to warn and defective design claims under the Indiana Products Liability Act. The tool manufacturer moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on the defective design claim.

Though the COA found Campbell Hausfeld’s summary judgment motion should have been denied in its entirety, the justices disagreed, finding that misuse is a complete defense to a product liability action, but must be proven.

“Prior to and since the 1995 Amendments, the other two statutory defenses that remain — incurred risk and alteration — have been treated as complete ones,” Justice Steven David wrote, referencing amendments to the IPLA. “… It does not make sense that these two defenses are complete bars, even after the amendments, but that misuse is only a consideration after the amendments. This would violate the doctrine of in pari materia — that statutes relating to the same subject matter should be construed together to produce a ‘harmonious statutory scheme.’”

Here, the misuse defense was proven, David said. He pointed to Johnson’s failure to wear proper safety glasses and use of a cut-off disk without a safety guard and below the minimum RPM rating. Those missteps were the cause of his injuries, David said, and those injuries were not reasonably expected by Campbell Hausfeld.

“We find that while Campbell Hausfeld could have perhaps reasonably expected a user to not use proper eyewear or for a user to attach a cut-off disc without a guard, or for a user to attach something with an improper RPM rating, it was not reasonably expected for a user to disregard the safety instructions in all three of these ways,” he wrote.

The case was remanded for proceedings.

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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