In Christensen v. Thornton, 988 N.E.2d 471 (Mass. App. Ct. June 3, 2013), plaintiff suffered injuries when he caught his hand in an industrial exhaust fan while installing drywall in a customer’s home. The operating instructions supplied with the fan warned that if it was installed at a height of less than seven feet, it must be used with a guard in order to meet federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety standards, and a warning label to the same effect was affixed to all such fans. The fan’s manufacturer made a guard that could be purchased as a separate component, and guards made by other manufacturers also could be used, but the fan could not be purchased with a guard preinstalled. After acquiring the fan secondhand, the homeowner, a licensed electrician, temporarily mounted it to the frame of a door that opened at the top of a three-step stairway. The bottom of the fan was flush with the edge of the top step and the fan was parallel to the path of the stairs with its blades exposed. The homeowner did not obtain the operating instructions when he purchased the fan, and did not remember a warning label on it. However, he testified at deposition that even if he had seen such a warning, this would not have deterred him from installing the fan in the manner in which he did.
Plaintiff sued the homeowner and the fan’s manufacturer and distributor in Massachusetts Superior Court, alleging the fan was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous because it did not have a pre-installed guard or safety clutch and defendants had failed to adequately warn of its dangers. Following plaintiff’s opening statement, but before any evidence was taken, the trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claims against the manufacturer and distributor as a matter of law. After the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in the case against the homeowner, plaintiff appealed.
Affirming the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claims, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held the failure-to-warn claim could not succeed because the undisputed facts revealed that the dangers of operating the unguarded fan at ground level and immediately adjacent to the path of transit where plaintiff was working were objectively obvious, and thus plaintiff should have appreciated the danger substantially to the same extent as if a warning had been provided. Indeed, plaintiff testified at his deposition that he did not want to go anywhere near the unguarded fan because he was aware it posed serious dangers. The court also affirmed dismissal of the design defect claim because plaintiff had not offered an expert to substantiate that claim. While the court acknowledged no expert was needed for the jury to understand that a fan not equipped with a guard or safety clutch could cause serious injury, an expert was needed to assess whether adding such safety features would unduly interfere with the fan’s cost or performance, especially since it was made for commercial and industrial uses. Indeed, there was evidence that use of a guard does diminish the fan’s effectiveness.