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Hartsock v. Wal-Mart Stores East

November 23, 2009

SCOTT HARTSOCK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WAL-MART STORES EAST, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rufe, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This is a product liability action in which Plaintiff claims he was injured by Defendants' allegedly defective ride-on tractor. Jurisdiction is predicated on diversity*fn1 and is not disputed by the parties. Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment,*fn2 seeking a determination that Plaintiff failed to adequately plead his "failure to warn" claim. Upon consideration of Plaintiff's Complaint,*fn3 Defendants' Answer,*fn4 and the pleadings and responses related to the instant Motion,*fn5 Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is GRANTED. The Court finds that Plaintiff did not submit sufficient evidence to establish a reasonable inference that defective warnings proximately caused his injury.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brings this action based on a incident that occurred on or about July 28, 2005 while he was mowing his lawn.*fn6 Plaintiff, using a ride-on lawnmower ("the product"), was driving on a level surface and attempting to turn when the mower lurched forward onto a slope, causing him to jump off.*fn7 The mower continued to function as it began rolling down the slope, striking Plaintiff in the leg.*fn8 The mower blades, still spinning, made contact with Plaintiff's hand, causing serious injury.*fn9 The blades continued spinning even when the mower stopped rolling.*fn10 Plaintiff suffered the amputation of his third, fourth, and fifth fingers of the left hand, laceration of his forearm, and deformity and loss of use of his left hand.*fn11

In the pleadings to date, the central factual dispute is whether the "operator presence switch," located in the mower's seat, was functioning properly at the time of the accident. If the switch is functioning properly, when the mower's user gets out of the seat, the blades stop rotating to prevent injury. Plaintiff charges that the product was defective, as the switch malfunctioned, causing the blades to continue spinning after he jumped off. Defendants maintain that as the product rolled down the slope, the seat was depressed by the weight of the mower, keeping the blades engaged; the switch worked properly in allowing the blades to work while pressure was on the seat.

Plaintiff alleges that he purchased the ride-on lawnmower at issue from the previous owner of his residence sometime in 1996 or 1997.*fn12 The product was manufactured by Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company and sold by Wal-Mart;*fn13 Plaintiff chooses to file suit against Wal-Mart ("Defendants") in this case. Plaintiff filed a products liability action against Defendants in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County on July 10, 2007, and then removed, filing his Complaint with this Court on August 6, 2007. The Complaint charges that the product had design and manufacturing defects, and that Defendants failed to adequately warn users of the dangers associated with the product.*fn14

Defendants filed the instant Motion on March 19, 2009, contending that they are entitled to summary judgment on the "failure to warn" claim because Plaintiff never testified that he recalled reading or relying on an owner's manual for the product, nor did he state that he would have asked for the manual at the time of purchase. Specifically, Defendants call attention to the report of Plaintiff's engineering expert witness, Richard A. Colberg, M. E., regarding the adequacy of the warnings in the owner's manual. Plaintiff's response conceded that a claim based on the warnings or lack thereof in the owner's manual could not succeed, and asserted a willingness to stipulate to that effect, but maintained that evidence on warnings "outside of the handbook itself" should not be precluded.*fn15 In support, he presented a supplemental report by Mr. Colberg, in which Mr. Colberg clarifies that he intended to state that Plaintiff was deprived of warning material not only in the manual, but on the mower itself and on any other printed matter accompanying it.*fn16

Defendants filed a reply, reiterating their argument that the entire failure to warn claim should be dismissed, again alleging that Plaintiff did not show the causal link between the lack of warnings and his injury.

II. STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Defendants move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. A moving party may be granted summary judgment with respect to any claim if the evidence shows that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."*fn17 A court may consider "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any" in making its determination.*fn18 An issue is "genuine" if a reasonable trier of fact could find for the nonmoving party in light of the evidence,*fn19 and a court must consider the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.*fn20

The burden is initially on the moving party to show an absence of evidence to support a claim raised by the nonmoving party.*fn21 Then, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to rebut the motion with the elements essential to maintain its case.*fn22 There must be enough evidence for a reasonable juror to decide for the nonmoving party; a mere scintilla of evidence is not enough.*fn23 If the nonmoving party fails to meet its burden, summary judgment is appropriate.

III. DISCUSSION

When jurisdiction is predicated on diversity, a court must follow the substantive law of the state in which the action was brought.*fn24 Under Pennsylvania law, a defendant is liable for failure to warn where the lack of warning 1) renders the product unreasonably dangerous and 2) is the cause in fact and the proximate cause of the accident.*fn25 If a product does not have adequate warnings, notifying users of inherent dangers associated with its use, then the product can be considered "defective" for strict liability purposes.*fn26 Liability arises because sellers and manufacturers have a non-delegable duty to provide warnings "in a form that will reach the ultimate consumer and inform of the risks and inherent limits of the product."*fn27 The adequacy of a warning, or a product's defectiveness due to inadequate warnings, is a question of law that may be resolved on summary judgment.*fn28

Defendants in this matter seek summary judgment on the failure to warn claim, asserting that Plaintiff has offered no evidence to show that the lack or inadequacy of a warning was the cause in fact or the proximate cause of his injuries. For failure to warn claims, "causation analysis focuses on the additional precautions that might have been taken by the end user had an adequate warning been given."*fn29 Plaintiff "must demonstrate that the user of the product would have avoided the risk had he or she been warned of it by the seller" in order to assert a failure to warn claim.*fn30 There must be "evidence... to support a ...


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