Massachusetts Appeals Court Reviews Duty to Warn in Wrongful Death Product Liability Case

Many products consumed by Massachusetts residents can be dangerous as well as useful. If a product contains inherent risks, manufacturers may be obligated to warn the consumer of these hazards. Manufacturers are liable for injuries caused by a failure to warn. This duty was discussed in a Massachusetts product liability decision. An executrix filed a wrongful death lawsuit after the decedent was found underneath a truck on his farm. His clothing was caught in a spinning U-joint that was a part of the truck, causing him to die by accidental asphyxiation. His widow filed suit against the manufacturer that produced the original core of the truck and the company that manufactured the equipment used to lift the dump body of the truck.

The deceased had originally bought the truck from an independent dealer as an “incomplete vehicle” in which there was a chassis, engine, and cab. It did not have the necessary components needed to perform the intended functions of a dump truck. The decedent transformed it into a functioning dump truck by installing the body and the mechanical system for tilting it. This was all completed decades before the accident, and no record was kept of who provided the work. The power take off (PTO) made by the second defendant connected to the transmission so that it could help power various kinds of equipment. This was achieved by the PTO spinning a post when it was engaged, which then powered the part attached to it.

The dump truck had several exposed parts like the auxiliary drive shaft and U-joint, which presented several dangers to anyone working below the truck when the PTO was running. Each respective manufacturer provided a warning of the risks that would be present in the future with a completed vehicle. The manufacturer of the truck provided a specific warning about the uses of PTOs and any related equipment. The relevant section of the manual contained a separate box marked “warning” with several exclamation points. General warnings were provided by the maker of the PTO, which advised avoiding going underneath the vehicle while the engine was running. It also admonished against working near the rotating drive shaft, due to the possibility of getting entangled.

Between the time of purchase and the injured person’s death, the manufacturers continued to improve on the warnings provided. The truck manufacturer included a warning of the risk of death, beyond “severe personal injury.” The manufacturer of the PTO added a pictogram of a human figure entangled in an exposed auxiliary drive shaft and additional specific warnings to eliminate auxiliary drive shafts.

The executrix argued at trial and on appeal that the manufacturers had failed in their duty to warn installers and end users of the risks inherent in the use of exposed components. The executrix considered these uses to be foreseeable. The Appeals Court disagreed, looking at the component parts doctrine to determine whether or not a duty was owed to the end consumer. The court found the potential dangers stemmed from the assembly of the component parts into the finished power system. Since the components themselves were not defective, no duty to warn assemblers or end users existed. (See Mitchell v. Sky Climber, Inc., 396 Mass. 629 (1986)). The court determined the risks associated with either product were not “reasonably foreseeable” as a matter of law. The court concluded there were no design defects, and the nature of a product manufactured for additional assembly did not require the manufacturers to warn of any anticipated danger. The summary judgments issued by the trial court in favor of the defendants were upheld.

When a defective product or negligent party causes the death of another person, it helps to have personal injury counsel at your side to navigate the legal complexities. The Massachusetts attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the experience you need to hold the company or person responsible accountable through the civil court system. Contact our office today at 508-822-6600 for a free, confidential consultation.

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