Removable Guards and the Case for Liability. What Warnings?

by John C Cherundolo on Apr. 15, 2014

Accident & Injury Products Liability Accident & Injury  Personal Injury 

Summary: A look at the American Airlines case involving a baggage handler rendered quadriplegic as a result of an alleged defect in the baggage cart.


        Even Though Plaintiff was Trained that High-Speed Winds on Runway Might Cause Hood of Tractor to Fly Up, Jury Could Still Reasonably Conclude That Plaintiff was Unaware That Engine From Airplanes on Runway Could Cause Danger. 


            Baggage handler brought products liability action against baggage tractor manufacturer, and airline for failure to warn following handler’s injury after a jet engine blew the hood of the tractor back on its hinges into the passenger compartment of the tractor sometime after the tractor’s cab had been removed. Plaintiff was struck in the head by the tractor’s hood, rendering him quadriplegic. Following a jury award of over $48 million in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Manufacturer and airline appealed.

            The evidence permitted the jury to find that the tractor has once been equipped with a can that might have protected plaintiff from the fly-away hood; that the tractor was sold by S&S without the cab, which was offered by S&S as an option and ordered by American Airlines separately and installed after the tractor’s delivery; that the cab had been removed by American Airlines after it was damaged; that the tractor’s hood was equipped with a hinge that permitted the hood to flip back 180 degrees and enter the passenger compartment; and that the rubber latches that secure the hood had deteriorated over time or had been removed, thus permitted the unsecured hood to fly away in the jet-wash. Plaintiff’s theory at trial was that S&S was liable for its failure to warn users that operating the vehicle without a cab and without adequate latches could lead to injury due to the design of the hood. Defendants argue that this theory was defective, either on its face or as presented to the jury by plaintiff’s evidence.

            S&S argues that plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case for liability on a failure to warn theory because his evidence did not establish that it was foreseeable to S&S that the tractor would be used in its modified state. The court finds that a jury could reasonably have found, based on the evidence at trial that it was foreseeable that the tractor would be used without a cab given that the cab was only a option.

            American Airlines argues that plaintiff’s case was legally insufficient because plaintiff was required to present expert proof regarding the feasibility, actual content, form and placement of the warning. The court finds that it is not persuaded that a jury would be so confused by lay testimony about the operation of the tractor’s cab, hood hinge, or latches as to undermine the sufficiency of the evidence in support of the verdict. That expert testimony - or an exemplar warning - may have assisted the jury, or advanced plaintiff’s case, does not mean that jurors could not understand, without such evidence, the basic mechanisms at issue in this case.

            S&S argues that any failure to warn did not proximately cause plaintiff’s injuries because, as a matter of law, the product’s danger was open and obvious, rendering a warning superfluous. The trial record, however, contains evidence from which the jury reasonably could have found that the hinge’s ability to open in a half circle, and the resulting possibility that the hood could rotate into the passenger compartment, was not obvious to any reasonably prudent person, since the mechanism was not readily apparent.

            S&S and American Airlines both argue that the evidence at trial required the jury to find that plaintiff was a knowledgeable user of the tractor because he knew or reasonable should have known of the specific danger based on his training and experience operating tractors for many years. The court finds that the jury could reasonably have found that plaintiff was not aware of the danger that the hood could open into the passenger compartment, or that the hood presented a danger when the tractor was operated away from full-power runway jet engines. The jury thus could reasonably have found that, although plaintiff had been trained and was aware that operating a tractor in the high-speed winds present on a runway was acutely dangerous, in part because of the risk that the hood might open, plaintiff was unaware of the danger that in fact materialized. 

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