December 30, 2018

Misuse Is A Complete Defense To A Product Liability Claim; Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Company v. Johnson

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

Indiana’s product liability statutes recognize a few defenses to a product liability claim, including misuse and comparative fault. The question posed in this case is whether misuse is a complete defense, or whether it is a partial defense based on comparative liability principles.

Johnson bought a grinder manufactured by Campbell Hausfeld. The product’s instructions warned customers to use safety glasses and ear protection. Those instructions also warned customers not to use a cut-off-disc unless a safety guard was in place, but a safety guard was not included. Finally, customers were warned to only use attachments rated for a minimum of 25,000 RPM. Johnson failed to heed these warnings.

Johnson intended to use the grinder on an automotive project with a friend. He attached a cut-off disc for the job but did not use a safety guard. The cut-off disc he used was rated lower than 25,000 RPM. And he did not wear safety glasses when doing the work, relying on his prescription glasses instead. When using the grinder, the cut-off disc came apart and a piece struck him in the left side of his face, breaking his eyeglasses and causing serious injuries to his cheek and eye.

Johnson sued Campbell Hausfeld. He alleged that the grinder’s instructions failed to warn him regarding the dangers of using the grinder with a cut-off disc but without a safety guard, and that the grinder was defective in its design because it was sold without a safety guard and no information on how to obtain or use a safety guard.

Campbell Hausfeld moved for summary judgment, arguing that Johnson both misused the product and that no reasonable jury could find Johnson less than 51% at fault for his injuries. The trial court agreed with Campbell Hausfeld on both of these arguments, but it did not grant judgment on all claims. Rather, it granted summary judgment to Campbell Hausfeld on Johnson’s defective design claim but denied that motion on Johnson’s failure to warn claim. Campbell Hausfeld appealed, and the Court of Appeals found that summary judgment should have been denied in its entirety. Campbell Hausfeld then was granted transfer.

On transfer, the Court examined whether the statutory misuse defense was a complete defense, or whether it should be considered with all other fault in the case under the comparative fault scheme. The Court had not previously addressed the issue.

In order to decide the issue, the Court looked to the history of Indiana’s product liability law. It noted that Indiana imposed strict liability under the common law, the misuse defense was added when Indiana’s first product liability statute was enacted in 1978, and that comparative fault principles were adopted in 1995. The Court noted that it had found misuse to be a complete defense under the pre-1995 law and noted the presumption “that the General Assembly was aware of the common law prior to the 1995 Amendments and did not intend to change it beyond the express terms of its enactments and the implications that follow.”

The Court then noted that the other two listed statutory defenses, incurred risk and alteration, had been recognized to be complete defenses under the post-1995 statutory scheme. It found that interpreting misuse differently “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.’”

Finally, the Court found “it would not make sense” to keep the misuse defense if it were only an issue to be considered in a comparative fault analysis. And it was noteworthy that misuse was not included in the definition of fault or as part of the comparative fault provision.

While we acknowledge that the IPLA definition is broad and seems like it could encompass the definition of misuse, it falls short of actually doing so. To engraft misuse into the comparative fault section of the statute would violate the doctrine of in pari materia and render the misuse defense meaningless. Accordingly, we hold that the misuse defense, like the alteration and incurred risk defenses, is a complete one.

In order to employ the misuse defense, a defendant “must show both that the misuse of the product is: 1) the cause of the harm; and 2) not reasonably expected by the seller.” Johnson admitted that he would not have been injured if he had used a safety guard, and the evidence showed that his injuries would have been lessened (but not prevented entirely) if he had worn safety glasses. It also noted that there were factual questions about whether using a low-rated RPM disc caused the injury. But “[i]n any case, had Johnson used a guard and safety glasses, his injuries would have been avoided. Thus, his failure to follow the instructions is the cause of his injuries.”

As for the “reasonably expected” part of the test:

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.

Here, Johnson could have avoided injury had he not used the cut-off disc or worn safety glasses. He did not do so. His multiple failures to follow the Grinder’s instructions were the cause of his injuries and taken together, could not be reasonably expected by a seller.

The Court’s analysis in this case is notable in a number of ways. For instance, the methods of statutory construction the Court used were interesting, and may be useful to those who wish to apply canons of statutory construction to a particular problem. And its application of the facts to the law is likely going to be heard many times in many courtrooms. In particular, the Court’s reliance on the lack of safety glasses when finding misuse under the statute is interesting, when the Court acknowledged that Johnson would have suffered some injuries even if he had been wearing safety glasses. I expect product liability defendants to find this helpful when litigating misuse defenses.

Lessons:

  1. If the Indiana Supreme Court has not yet spoken on an important issue, do not feel constrained by longstanding precedents in the Seventh Circuit or Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court may well follow a different path.
  2. Although a complete defense, misuse is limited by the requirement that the misuse not be “reasonably anticipated by the seller.”