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Renninger v. A&R Machine Shop and Cass Hudson Co.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 11, 2017

DENNIS A. RENNINGER AND PATSY D. RENNINGER Appellants
v.
A&R MACHINE SHOP AND CASS HUDSON COMPANY Appellee

         Appeal from the Judgment Entered November 12, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Clarion County Civil Division at No: 645 CD 2009

          BEFORE: LAZARUS, STABILE, and STRASSBURGER, [*] JJ.

          OPINION

          STABILE, J.

         Appellants, Dennis A. Renninger and his wife, Patsy D. Renninger, appeal from the judgment of November 12, 2015. We affirm.

         On May 25, 2007, Appellant Dennis Renninger was at work in the Clarion, Pennsylvania plant of his employer, Commodore Homes ("Commodore"), a manufacturer of modular homes, when he sustained a serious injury to his foot. While under construction, each modular home moves along an assembly on wheeled casters attached to its underside. Mr. Renninger was injured when a caster ran over his foot. Appellants sued Appellees A&R Machine Shop ("A&R")[1] and Cass Hudson Company ("Cass Hudson") as the designers, manufacturers and suppliers of the casters. Appellants alleged causes of action for strict products liability, negligence, breach of implied warranty, and loss of consortium causes of action, claiming the casters should have included toe guards. The case proceeded to a June 22-25, 2015 jury trial on Appellants' strict products liability/design defect claim.[2] The jury returned a defense verdict, finding Cass Hudson did not supply a defective product. Appellants filed timely post-trial motions on June 30, 2015. The trial court denied those motions on November 3, 2015. The verdict was reduced to judgment on November 12, 2015, and this timely appeal followed.

         Appellant raises seven assertions of error, which we have reordered for clarity of analysis:

I. Whether in its November 3, 2015 order, the trial court erred in denying [Appellants'] motion for post-trial relief which requested in the alternative either: (1) an order of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict setting aside the jury's verdict and issuing an award for [Appellants], or (2) ordering a new trial in this matter, where the issuance of such an order was clearly supported by the evidentiary record and controlling case law and the denial of such request deprived [Appellants] of an adequate statutory or legal remedy and was clearly contrary to the applicable case law.
II. Whether in its November 3, 2015 order, the trial court erred in finding that it properly allowed evidence and testimony of industry standards and employer conduct to be considered by the jury.
III. Whether the trial court erred in its April 17, 2015 order on motions in limine where it expressly stated that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling in [Tincher[3] allowed for the introduction of the following at trial:
(a) Industry safety standards;
(b) OSHA safety standards;
(c) Employer conduct; and
(d) Conduct of third parties, including but not limited to assumption of risk by [Mr. Renninger].
IV. Whether in its November 3, 2015 order, the trial court erred in finding that it properly instructed the jury on the question of defective design of a product. Specifically, whether the court erred when it instructed the jury on the factors to consider in applying the risk utility analysis required pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in [Tincher], when it instructed the jury to consider a seven-part test which was not adopted by the [Tincher] decision.
V. Whether the trial court erred when it failed to properly craft a jury verdict question and failed to place such jury questions in a sequence that resulted in the jury deciding the case before being asked to apply the risk utility analysis required by [Tincher]. Specifically, jury questions 1 and 2, which were generic questions that did not require the application of the risk utility analysis, and consequently this case was decided without the application of risk utility by the jury.
VI. Whether in its November 3, 2015 order, the trial court erred in finding that it properly disallowed a jury instruction on the doctrine of intended use in the context of products liability design defect cases pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in [Tincher].
VII. Whether the trial court erred in its January 27, 2011 order on [Appellees'] motions for summary judgment where it misapplied Pa.R.C.P. [No.] 1035.2, in that it relied upon an affidavit to prematurely grant summary judgment in favor of [Appellees] before the close of discovery and dismissed certain counts of [Appellants'] amended complaint; and more importantly used that same affidavit to conclude that the third party/employer was the designer of the subject product, and that neither [Appellee] designed the wheeled caster assemblies at issue.

Appellants' Brief at 4-6.

         Before we analyze Appellants' legal arguments, we will review the facts introduced at trial. Mr. Renninger's job at Commodore was to help build and finish roofs. N.T Trial, 6/22/15, at 60. Mr. Renninger's plant built roughly ten to twelve homes at one time. N.T. Trial, 6/23/15, at 21. The homes under construction moved around the assembly line on casters bolted to their undersides. Id. at 22, 24. Originally, Commodore positioned the casters several feet inside of the home's outer frame, such that a moving caster could not run over the foot of a person standing alongside a moving home. Id. at 22-23, 92, 114-15; N.T. Trial, 6/24/15, at 96. Commodore repositioned the casters to the outer edge of the homes to prevent bowing in the floor joists.[4] Id.; N.T. Trial, 6/24/15, at 58. Commodore modified twenty casters to accommodate the new location. R 796-802. Cass Hudson and A&R Machine subsequently supplied additional casters fabricated to meet the new specifications. Id. The twenty modified casters remained in use at the time of Mr. Renninger's accident, and it was not possible to distinguish the casters Commodore modified from the unmodified casters subsequently supplied by Cass Hudson. Id.

         Mr. Renninger's accident occurred while he was on the plant floor speaking to his foreman. N.T. Trial, 6/23/15, at 26-28. Mr. Renninger testified that Commodore never trained its employees on Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") regulations regarding the plant floor. Id. at 85. Mr. Renninger was not aware of any OSHA regulation requiring the use of steel-toed boots on the plant floor, and he did not own steel-toed boots on the date of the accident. Id. at 83-85. He was wearing tennis shoes when the accident occurred, and he was aware that the casters did not have a guard to prevent the wheel from running over a foot. Id. at 80. Mr. Renninger also testified that the plant floor was not level, such that some of the wheels underneath a moving modular home would touch the ground while others did not. Id. at 85-86. Mr. Renninger believed a toe guard on the caster would have prevented his injury. Id. at 96-97. Mr. Renninger did not believe a steel-toed boot would have prevented his injury. Id. at 97.

         Richard Guzicki an employee of Appellee Cass Hudson who helped handle the Commodore account, testified that Cass Hudson is a distributor of casters and wheels. N.T. Trial, 6/24/15, at 5. Cass Hudson consults with its customers to determine an appropriate caster for their needs. Id. at 5, 17. Dale Toney, director of special operations for Commodore, testified that he relied on Guzicki to supply an appropriate wheel for the height and weight. Id. at 80, 83, 110. According to Guzicki, Cass Hudson does not advise customers on the need for toe guards in a given application, and does not analyze the safety needs at a customer's plant. Id. at 43-45. Likewise, Cass Hudson personnel did not visit the plant where the accident occurred. Id. at 47. Thus, Cass Hudson had no opportunity to observe the condition of the plant floor.[5]

         Delbert Miller, one of the owners of A&R Machine Shop ("A&R"), testified that A&R fabricated the brackets that held the casters to the modular homes. N.T. Trial, 6/24/15, at 57. Cass Hudson is one of A&R's largest customers. Id. at 67-68. Like Guzicki, Miller never visited the plant where the accident occurred. Id. at 69.

         Both parties produced expert witnesses. Paul Dreyer, a mechanical engineer and Appellants' expert witness, described the roles of Commodore, Cass Hudson, and A&R:

Okay. Commodore is the manufacturer of the modular homes, so they know modular homes. A&R Machine is basically a machine shop that builds metal fabricated parts, things that drill holes and a certain size and shape. They supplied a metal fabric part which they called a bracket to Cass Hudson. And Cass Hudson took the bracket and mounted it to the caster assembly and then supplied it directly to Commodore to be used underneath the modular home.

N.T. Trial, 6/23/15, at 114. Dreyer testified that the casters attached to the outer edge of the modular homes were defective because they lacked a toe guard. Id. at 117.

[T]he main reason why a toe guard is important for this particular application is because this is a very large wheel with a very heavy load. That can be very dangerous. And because of that circumstance, it needed to be-the workers needed to be protected from the possible movement of that very heavy load onto their foot.

Id. at 117-18.

Further:
For this particular caster assembly to have, like I mentioned, a large wheel which has no guarding, no protection, which is-could instill a very serious injury on a worker who is paying attention to his job and not thinking that there's an imminent hazard, imminent danger right below him until obviously after it occurred. And if this caster had a guard assembly, a toe guard assembly, it might have pinched his foot but pushed it out of the way so it wouldn't be ridden completely over and partially-according to the documents, partially up his ankle before they could get it off of his foot and cause that serious injury.

Id. at 120. In Dreyer's opinion, the toe guard was preferable to using another worker as a spotter, and it was also preferable to using a buzzer or beeper on a moving modular home. Id. at 121. A spotter may not see everything, and a buzzer might not get the attention of a worker wearing ear protection. Id. Multiple homes moving along the assembly line and beeping could cause confusion. Id.

         Dreyer stated that Cass Hudson's suppliers offer toe guards for sale in their catalogues, but he acknowledged that a toe guard for the casters Commodore purchased would have needed to be custom designed. Id. at 118. A custom designed toe guard would have increased the cost of each caster by 10 to 12 percent. Id. at 123-25. Dreyer said it should have been obvious to Cass Hudson that a toe guard was necessary, once the casters were moved to the outer edge of the modular homes. Id. at 206.

         Dreyer believed the use of a toe guard would have been in accord with industry standards. "The caster industry has done that analysis and come up with a couple of different toe guard designs, and I have my faith in their industry that that design minimizes injury." Id. at 161. Commodore's compliance, or lack thereof, with OSHA regulations was not relevant to Dreyer's analysis of the product design. Id. at 201, 209.

         The defense expert, Gary Hutter, testified that no industry standard requires heavy-duty casters to have toe guards. N.T. Trial, 6/24/15, at 167-68.

Q. Is that a standard that exists in the wheel supply industry?
A. No, it is not. It's not a standard in the wheel supply industry, nor is it a requirement by OSHA. I'm on an ANSI [American National Standards Institute] committee that's involved with casters. I voted on two of their standards. It's not a requirement in those standards either.
Q. Do you know of any law, any regulation, any standard or any literature that coincides with Mr. Dreyer's opinion that all ...

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