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Hausfeld v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 29, 2017

Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Company, Appellant-Defendant,
v.
Paul Johnson, Appellee-Plaintiff

         Appeal from the Porter Superior Court The Honorable Mary R. Harper, Judge, Trial Court Cause No. 64D05-1407-CT-5893

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT J. Curtis Greene Mark J. Crandley Meredith Thornburgh White J.T. Larson Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE Theodore L. Stacy Valparaiso, Indiana

          ALTICE, JUDGE.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Paul Johnson lost his eye and suffered other facial injuries after using a tool designed and sold by Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Company (Campbell Hausfeld). In response to the products liability suit filed by Johnson, Campbell Hausfeld alleged the defenses of misuse, alteration, and incurred risk and filed a motion for summary judgment primarily based on these defenses. The trial court determined that Campbell Hausfeld had established misuse as a matter of law due to Johnson's failure to wear safety glasses. Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Campbell Hausfeld on Johnson's defective design claim. The trial court, however, denied summary judgment with regard to the failure to warn claim. On appeal, Campbell Hausfeld argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on both claims, while Johnson contends that neither claim warrants summary judgment.

         [¶2] We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

         Facts & Procedural History

         [¶3] Campbell Hausfeld sells various power tools to consumers through retailers throughout the United States. Around 2000, Campbell Hausfeld undertook a project to work with outside manufacturers to design and produce a line of pneumatic tools targeted to the consumer do-it-yourself market. As part of this project, Campbell Hausfeld designed a mini air die grinder called the TL1120 (the Grinder), which it sold in stores through 2011. The Grinder is an eight-inch, handheld, air-powered tool intended for grinding, polishing, deburring, and smoothing surfaces in close spaces. It is packaged with wrenches to be used to loosen the metal receiver at the end of the tool to add and remove different attachments, which are not included with the Grinder. The Grinder does not include a safety guard. If permanently affixed, a guard would prevent users from grinding in tight areas and would obscure users' view.

         [¶4] The Grinder also came with a set of operating instructions. Included within these instructions are the following two relevant warnings:

         (Image Omitted)

         Appellant's Appendix Vol. Ill. at 201-202. The instructions indicate that a warning symbol "alerts you to a hazard that COULD result in death or serious injury". Id. at 201. Additionally, the surfaces of the Grinder direct users to read the manual, wear safety glasses, and use accessories rated at or above 25, 000 RPM.

         [¶5] Although the Grinder was expressly intended for grinding, polishing, deburring, and smoothing, the instructions reference using a cut-off disc with the Grinder. Specifically, in plain text and without a warning or other symbol, Instruction 15 states: "Do not use a cut-off disc mandrel on this tool unless a safety guard is in place." Id. As stated above, however, no safety guard was provided for use with the Grinder.

         [¶6] Johnson, an experienced tool user, purchased the Grinder for a welding project several months prior to August 2012. After reading the operating instructions, he attached a wire wheel accessory that he already owned to the Grinder and used it to clean film off the weld. Johnson did not use the Grinder again until the night of August 20, 2012.

         [¶7] That night, Andrew Reed came over to Johnson's pole barn to visit. Johnson indicated that he wanted to work on replacing the headlights on Reed's truck, a project the two had been contemplating for some time. The project required the cutting of fiberglass and a metal headlight bezel. Because he would be working in a tight space, Johnson decided to use the Grinder with a cut-off disc, which he connected using a mandrel, instead of his angle grinder.[1] Though aware that the Grinder did not have a guard, Johnson claims that he did not realize that there was a risk of personal injury if he used a cut-off disc on the Grinder without a guard. The cut-off disc likely had a maximum RPM rating of 19, 000. Reed expressed concern that the RPM rating for the disk was too low, but Johnson promptly put him at ease.

         [¶8] Johnson wore prescription glasses as he cut around the headlights with the Grinder. He thought the glasses, which contained safety glass, were sufficient to constitute safety glasses. Johnson quickly completed the cuts around the first headlight and moved to the second. He took a break while cutting the second opening in order to allow his air compressor to regain pressure. When he began the final cut, the disc disintegrated and a piece struck him in the left side of his face, breaking his eyeglasses and causing serious injury to his cheek and eye. Johnson ultimately lost his left eye.

         [¶9] In 2014, Johnson timely filed suit against Campbell Hausfeld for damages he sustained as the result of using the Grinder. Johnson asserted failure to warn and defective design claims under the Indiana Products Liability Act (IPLA). On September 29, 2016, Campbell Hausfeld filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued, among other things, that the evidence established each of the three defenses provided by the IPLA (misuse, alteration, and incurred risk) and that no reasonable jury could find Johnson less than 51% at fault for his injuries. Both parties designated evidence and filed briefs with the trial court.[2]

         [¶10] Along with other evidence, Johnson designated the affidavit of Lloyd Sonenthal, a professional forensic engineer and products liability attorney.[3] In his lengthy affidavit, Sonenthal opines that faulty instructions, inadequate warnings, and lack of a safety guard (or specific information regarding a proper guard) rendered the Grinder unreasonably dangerous when it left the manufacturer. Sonenthal addresses the danger inherent in using a cut-off disc with a die grinder and observes that ISO 11148-9:2001(E)[4] paragraph 6.2.2.9, titled "Accessory hazards" provides in relevant part: "Never mount a grinding wheel, cut-off wheel or router cutter on a die grinder. A grinding wheel that bursts can cause very serious injury or death." Appellant's Appendix Vol. III at 196. Sonenthal also notes that ISO 11148-9:2001 paragraph 4.2.6 states in part: "die grinders intended for use with accessories larger than 50 mm in diameter shall have a wheel guard." Id. Campbell Hausfeld did not provide users of the Grinder with a guard, even though Instruction 15 suggested that a cut-off wheel could be used with the Grinder and the instructions did not limit the size of accessories. Further, Sonenthal observes that Campbell Hausfeld did not warn users of the dangers associated with using a cut-off wheel on the Grinder. Sonenthal opined that these defects were proximate causes of Johnson's injuries and that Johnson's use of a disc with an RPM rating of 19, 000 was not a contributing factor because the disc was rotating below its designed speed by a wide margin.

         [¶11] Following a hearing, the trial court entered an order on March 10, 2017, concluding that Johnson misused the Grinder as a matter law by failing to wear safety glasses. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Campbell Hausfeld on the defective design claim but denied summary judgment with respect to the failure to warn claim. Campbell Hausfeld moved to certify the order for interlocutory appeal. The trial court ...


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