The Minnesota Supreme Court appears to have abandoned a common law limit on the tort liability of product manufacturers, particularly in a workplace setting. In a 4-3 decision, issued in Montemayor v. Sebright Products, Inc.,1 the Court ruled that despite strong facts regarding the plaintiff's fault, and the fault of his employer, the defense of unforeseeable misuse–a standard doctrine protecting manufacturers from liability where the injured party acts in a manner that could not be anticipated–was a "close call," and, therefore, a fact issue for the jury. Montemayor has lowered the threshold for a plaintiff to survive summary judgment. The decision illustrates, and perhaps endorses, manufacturer liability for workplace accidents in which negligent employers are protected, at least in part, by workers' compensation exclusivity. The decision also speaks to the increasing liberality of the Court, at least in the context of product liability law.
Montemayor involves an accident that led to the serious bodily injury of the plaintiff as a result of his employer's misuse of an industrial extruder and his employer's failure to adequately train employees on the equipment's proper use. At the time of his injury, the plaintiff was working as a laborer at VZ Hogs, a company that raises hogs and uses a high-density extruder manufactured by the defendant, Sebright Products, Inc. ("Sebright"), to extract expired dairy products from containers for hog feed.
On the day of the accident, the extruder jammed and the plaintiff climbed inside and tried to clear it. While the plaintiff was inside the extruder, a co-worker attempted to clear the jam mechanically from the machine's control panel. The plaintiff's employer had relocated the control panel from the extruder to an elevated room with a view over the top of the extruder. From this position, the co-worker could not see the plaintiff inside the machine. The co-worker ran the extruder and a hydraulic press crushed the plaintiff's legs, resulting in two above-the-knee amputations.
The plaintiff received workers' compensation for his injuries and his employer paid substantial fines for its negligent conduct. Plaintiff then brought a products liability action against Sebright, alleging that the extruder had a defective design and that the warnings on the machine were inadequate.
Sebright took several steps to protect its product's users. It equipped the extruder's control panel with a locking selector switch and advised that the extruder should be locked in the "off" position when not in use. At the time of the accident, the key was broken off into the keyhole and the extruder was locked in the "on" position. Further, the extruder's manual instructed that only "thoroughly trained personnel" should operate the extruder. The manual and warning labels on the extruder also warned users to follow OSHA mandated "lockout/tagout" procedures, which ensure that workers disable all sources of energy before entering the extruder. However, the plaintiff had not read the extruder manual and had not received training on lockout/tagout procedures or how to unjam the extruder from his employer.
At the close of discovery, Sebright filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that it did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff because it was not reasonably foreseeable that a person would physically enter the extruder while another person activated it from the control panel. The district court granted the motion, ruling that the circumstances which caused the plaintiff's injuries were not reasonably foreseeable to impose a duty. The court of appeals affirmed.
In a 4-3 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. Justice McKeig, writing for the majority, held that the case was too close to permit summary judgment on the issue of foreseeability of misuse. The majority found that reasonable persons might differ as to the foreseeability of the plaintiff's injury under the circumstances. Because the court of appeals did not consider the district court's alternative holdings, the case was remanded for consideration of such issues.2
Chief Justice Gildea, in a strongly worded dissenting opinion on behalf of herself and Justices Anderson and Stras, characterized the majority opinion as "bad law," stating, "it is not reasonable, as a matter of law, common sense, or public policy, to expect a manufacturer to foresee–absent any admissible evidence–that the safety device it installed on the machine would be disabled and that an employer would violate multiple safety regulations in using the machine." Chief Justice Gildea concluded by lamenting the majority's imposition of a duty on manufacturers to design an "accident-proof or fool-proof" product.
A product manufacturer has a duty to design reasonably safe products and to provide a warning when it is foreseeable that the product will be used in a dangerous manner. But a product manufacturer does not have a duty to design accident proof products. A product manufacturer's duty arises from a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff. Whether or not a duty exists is generally a legal question decided by the courts but in close cases the question of foreseeability is left to the jury. While the general contours of the standard are fairly clear, the precise language that has been used to describe the legal framework is inconsistent and, as Montemayor demonstrates, can be molded to create what is arguably no standard at all.
The Montemayor decision seems to render the unforeseeable misuse defense useless because products might be misused in myriad different ways which may be found foreseeable in hindsight. This result appears to shift the cost of egregious product misuse to manufacturers, resulting in products being engineered to protect against phantom risks at the expense of utility, encouraging irresponsible behavior and forcing careful users to bear the costs of other individuals' careless actions, all to the determinant of Minnesota manufacturers, consumers and workers.
Unfortunately for product manufacturers, this significant case comes at a time when great uncertainty exists regarding whether one of the Court's more conservative justices, David Stras, will vacate his seat for a position on the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals. The supreme court currently consists of four Justices appointed by Governor Mark Dayton (D), and three by former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R), including Justice Stras.
If you have any questions regarding this recent activity or Minnesota products liability law, please contact one of the attorneys in HKM's Product Liability Defense Group at 651.227.9411.
1 898 N.W.2d 623 (Minn. 2017), available at https://mn.gov/law-library-stat/archive/supct/2017/OPA151188-071217.pdf (last visited Nov. 7, 2017).
2 On remand, the court of appeals concluded that the plaintiff's failure to warn claim and control-panel design defect theories failed as a matter of law. No. A15-1188, available at https://mn.gov/law-library-stat/archive/ctapun/2017/OPa151188r-112017.pdf (last visited Dec. 18, 2017). The court of appeals rejected the plaintiff's request to abandon its precedent and to adopt a "heeding presumption," which grants the plaintiff a rebuttable presumption that an adequate warning would have been read and heeded. But the court of appeals reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment for Sebright on the plaintiff's start-up design defect claim, holding there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether incorporating a start-up alarm and delay would have prevented the plaintiff's injuries. A jury may ultimately decide the evidence does not support this claim, but the court of appeals decision reinforces how difficult it is for product manufacturers to prevail on a motion for summary judgment.