Generally, for a manufacturer to be liable for product liability, the product must have been defective at the time of the first sale. If the defect resulted from a modification that occurred after the original sale of the product, the manufacturer will generally not be held liable. The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered the application of this rule in a case in which a product had been repaired with unused original parts that were designed to be used with a previous version of the product.
Birch v. Polaris Industries, Inc., arose from the death of a man in an off-road vehicle accident. The vehicle flipped over and pinned the man.
Less than two weeks after the man purchased the vehicle in 2011, the roll-over protection structure was destroyed when the vehicle flipped in an accident. The man received an estimate that indicated it would cost more than $6,000 to repair the roll cage and other damage. He asked the technician who provided the estimate to perform the repairs on the side. The technician, who was certified by the manufacturer as a master service dealer technician, agreed to repair the vehicle. He bought a new roll-over protection structure off Craigslist.com, but it was designed for use with a 2008 model of the vehicle. There were several changes to the roll-over protection structure between 2008 and 2009, and the technician had to grind tabs off the mainframe to make it work.
The man was in another accident in the vehicle in June 2012. The roll-over protection structure buckled when it hit the ground. The man was pinned to the ground and ultimately died. His family sued the manufacturer of the vehicle in strict product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.
The manufacturer moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence that the vehicle was defective at the time the man had purchased it. The plaintiffs moved to amend the complaint and conduct additional discovery, but the motions were denied for being untimely. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, based on the allegations in the original complaint. The plaintiffs appealed.
In Utah, a plaintiff in a strict product liability claim must show that the product was unreasonably dangerous as the result of a defect, that the defect existed when the product was sold, and that the defect caused the injuries. Negligence and breach of warranty claims likewise require that the defective condition exists at the time of the initial sale.
After deposing the technician, the defendant moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the technician’s modification caused a defect that had not existed at the time of sale. The plaintiffs moved to amend the complaint to include not only the vehicle but also the roll-over protection structure that the technician installed. They also sought to add a claim that the inadequate training and evaluation of certified service technicians resulted in “unsafe assembly methods and insufficient knowledge of aftermarket parts compatibility.”
Three weeks later, the plaintiffs moved to postpone the ruling on the summary judgment motion so that they could conduct additional discovery. They argued they should be allowed additional discovery because they did not know the roll cage was a 2008 model until the vehicle had been disassembled by the parties.
The plaintiffs’ motions were found to be untimely and were denied. The trial court found that the plaintiffs had not shown sufficient evidence to establish that there was a defect in the product at the time of sale and granted the motion for summary judgment.
The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the district court reviewed the magistrate’s order denying their motions under the wrong standard. They further argued that the court was in error in concluding that the plaintiffs had not given sufficient justification for the delay in filing their motions. The circuit court rejected both arguments.
The plaintiffs also argued that the district court should have denied summary judgment, even if it only considered the original complaint. The circuit court determined that there was no genuine issue of material fact that the product contained a defect at the time of sale. The complaint defined the product as the vehicle, indicating the make, model, and vehicle identification number and stating it was manufactured by the defendant. The circuit court noted that the defendant did not manufacture a 2011 vehicle with a 2008 roll-over protection system. The circuit court found that the unamended complaint did not include a claim for an injury arising from the roll cage installed by the technician. There was no evidence in the record suggesting that the unmodified vehicle had a defect that resulted in the man’s death. The circuit court found that the plaintiffs were unable to prove the claim, and summary judgment was proper.
Our product liability attorneys understand the importance of thoroughly investigating a case to determine if any modifications may affect the case. Doing so makes it more likely that all potential claims will be properly pled in the original complaint and included in discovery.
The Ferraro Law Firm handles claims resulting from defective products or dangerous pharmaceuticals. Call 1-800-275-3332 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.
Birch v. Polaris Industries, Inc., December 23, 2015, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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