The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has affirmed an $8.8 million judgment rendered against companies that made and sold a post-hole digger and its component parts that allegedly caused a teenager’s personal injuries, including the loss of most of her right arm. Hoover v. New Holland N. Am., Inc., No. 36 (N.Y., decided April 1, 2014). The defendant companies argued on appeal that the trial court erred by refusing to grant their motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs’ design-defect claims. The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that, while the defendants “met their initial burden on their motion for summary judgment,” the plaintiffs “submitted sufficient evidence to defeat that motion and on their direct case at trial to make out a prima facie case of defective design of the digger.”
The digger’s owner was a grape farmer who used it to drill 1,000 to 2,000 post holes annually for about four years before he removed a plastic shield that covered a protruding nut-and-bolt assembly which evidence showed had caught on the teenager’s jacket pocket. He removed the shield because his use of the digger brought the shield into contact with the ground at least 5 to 10 percent of the time, damaging the shield beyond repair. The farmer testified that he decided not to replace it because he knew it would become “bent up, broke up, and tore off again.” The digger was lacking the shield when the teenager’s stepfather borrowed and used it.
The digger’s on-product warnings and owner’s manual warned against operation without all equipment shields in place and told the operator not to allow it to penetrate the ground to a depth where the helical blade would be submerged— this is what occurred every time the shield made ground contact. The defendants argued that they should not be held liable because they had designed and produced a safe product, and the injuries resulted from “substantial alterations or modification of the product by a third party.”
The high court majority stated that the grape farmer’s failure to replace the broken safety shield did not entitle the defendants to summary judgment because “expert evidence raised a question whether Smith’s failure to replace the shield alone caused plaintiff’s injuries, or whether his failure pointed to a failure on defendants’ part in selling and distributing the digger with a defectively designed shield.… Although owners are obligated to keep their products in good repair, they should not be required to continually replace defective safety components even if, as here, the components could be replaced easily and cheaply.”
According to the court, the defendants did not show that the owner’s use constituted abuse of the digger—“[u]sing the digger to drill thousands of post holes per year appears to fall squarely within the intended use of that product, and nothing in the record conclusively shows at what point a properly designed shield would be expected to wear out and require replacement under these circumstances.” The court also pointed to evidence that ground contact was foreseeable during normal use and that “more robust durability testing would have revealed that a plastic shield would not hold up under these circumstances. Indeed, the record indicates that the shield underwent limited durability testing, none of which included contact with the ground.”
The lone dissenting judge characterized the case as the “kind of soak-the-rich factfinding” that “is commonplace in American tort law.” This jurist would have ruled that the post-hole digger was safe at the time of sale and that it “would have remained in place if Smith had not battered it into uselessness, thrown it away and not bothered to replace it.