MALEN v. MTD PRODUCTS (November 19, 2010)

Donald Malen bought a reconditioned riding lawnmower in 2001 from Home Depot. The mower was manufactured in 1998 by MTD Products. It was designed with two particular safety features that turned off the engine if the operator rose from his seat or shifted into reverse, respectively, without completely disengaging the mower blade. It also came with warning labels instructing the operator to disengage the blade before leaving his seat. Malen operated the mower for several years without a problem. In late 2004, the mower got hung up on a curb while Malen was mulching leaves. He tried "rocking" between forward and reverse but without success. He lifted his foot from the pedal that engages the blade and stepped off the mower. He did not turn off the engine. He slipped as he stepped to the ground and the blade struck and severely injured his foot as it went under the mower. He brought suit against Home Depot and MTD Products under strict products liability and negligence theories. The negligence theories were that: a) the mower was negligently manufactured because the safety devices were not operable and b) the mower was negligently designed because it did not have a fail-safe system that would have stopped the blade even without the safety device. Discovery established that: a) Malen thought he disengaged the blade when he lifted his foot off the pedal, b) the safety devices were present but not connected, c) when connected, the devices worked and stopped the blade within 2.6 seconds of the operator rising from his seat, and d) a fail-safe version of the safety feature was available at the time Malen purchased the reconditioned mower. Judge Norgle (N.D. Ill) granted summary judgment to the defendants, concluding that Malen understood and ignored the warning labels and was, therefore, the sole cause of his accident. Malen appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Evans and Williams reversed and remanded. Under both the strict liability and negligence theories of liability, causation is a necessary element. The Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that the mower was defective and the proximate cause of Malen's injury. The Court first addressed the issues of unreasonably dangerous and negligent design, even though the district court found no need to. It concluded that a jury could find, on the record before it, that the mower was originally put into the stream of commerce without the safety switch. Such a finding would lead to the conclusion that the mower was unreasonably dangerous and that its manufacturer was negligent. Although Malen did not purchase the mower new, the Court concluded that a reconditioned product sold with a full warranty should be treated like a new one. The Court found no controlling Illinois decision on that point, but found support for its conclusion in other jurisdictions and from the Restatement. The Court found sufficient evidence to go to a jury on the negligent design theory as well. The evidence established that MTD incorporated the improved, fail-safe design in its products before Malen purchased his mower. Finally, the Court addressed proximate cause and identified several reasons why summary judgment based on proximate cause was improper. First, the Court concluded that Malen’s failure to heed the warnings was not relevant if the mower was defective for lack of a safety system. Second, if it was relevant, it would be a factor only in determining whether Malen’s conduct was foreseeable. The evidence in the record is that the safety device was developed because that kind of conduct was actually not only foreseeable but routine. Third, the Court concluded that Illinois would extend crashworthiness doctrine to mowers. That doctrine requires a manufacturer to reasonably design a product to minimize the effects of an accident. Malen's conduct here was foreseeable under the crashworthiness doctrine and does not establish proximate cause. Finally, under Illinois law, Malen is barred from recovery only if his negligence contributed more than 50% to the proximate cause of the injury. For all those reasons, the Court found summary judgment erroneous.