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Brewer v. PACCAR, Inc.

Supreme Court of Indiana

June 17, 2019

Angela Brewer, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Rickey A. Brewer, Deceased, Appellant (Plaintiff)
v.
PACCAR, Inc. d/b/a Peterbilt Motors Co., Appellee (Defendant)

          Argued: October 25, 2018

          Appeal from the Morgan Circuit Court No. 55C01-1605-CT-691 The Honorable Matthew G. Hanson, Judge On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals No. 55A05-1709-CT-2168

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT John P. Daly, Jr. Jared A. Harts Golitko & Daly, P.C. Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Jeffrey J. Mortier Maggie L. Smith Blake N. Shelby Frost Brown Todd LLC Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ATTORNEY FOR AMICUS CURIAE THE INDIANA LEGAL FOUNDATION Mark J. Crandley Barnes & Thornburg LLP Indianapolis, Indiana.

          OPINION

          Rush, Chief Justice.

         In Indiana, when an individual is injured by a defectively designed product, the Indiana Product Liability Act (IPLA) provides a basis for relief. The injured party may bring a defective-design claim against the manufacturers of a component part, as well as of the final product.

         Today we address a narrow question regarding an IPLA design-defect claim: when does a component-part manufacturer owe no duty, as a matter of law, to install safety features that an injured party alleges are necessary?

         PACCAR is the manufacturer of a "glider kit," a component part that becomes an operable over-the-road semi-truck after a purchaser installs an engine, transmission, and exhaust system. The glider kit has a forty-foot blind spot behind it; and it is PACCAR's standard practice not to include certain safety features to mitigate that danger, unless a customer specifically requests them.

         Here, a driver backed up a semi with an integrated PACCAR glider kit and struck and killed construction foreman Rickey Brewer. His widow asserted a design-defect claim against PACCAR, alleging that the lack of certain safety features rendered the glider kit defective. PACCAR argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because it owed no duty, as a matter of law, to install those safety features-because this duty fell solely on the final manufacturer of the completed semi.

         Under these circumstances, PACCAR, as the component-part manufacturer, is not entitled to summary judgment. Its glider kit was not going to be incorporated into an end product that had multiple anticipated configurations. Rather, the component part had one reasonably foreseeable use: to be integrated into an operable over-the-road semi. Thus, PACCAR had to make one of two showings to be relieved of a duty, as a matter of law, to include the allegedly necessary safety features. It made neither.

         PACCAR did not show that the final manufacturer was offered, and declined, the allegedly necessary safety features or that the integrated glider kit can be used safely without them. Thus, whether PACCAR owed Brewer a duty to include the features is a question for the trier of fact.

         Finally, while PACCAR may assert a sophisticated-user defense against the design-defect claim, the merits of that defense are likewise a question for the trier of fact. We accordingly reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment for PACCAR.

         Facts and Procedural History

         PACCAR manufactures vehicles and parts that W&W Transport uses to conduct its trucking operations. One PACCAR product that W&W purchases is a glider kit-the body and frame of a semi-truck. W&W purchases glider kits, as opposed to new vehicles, so that it can install its preferred engines, producing more fuel-efficient semis that are easier to maintain.

         In 2015, W&W bought a PACCAR sleeper-cab glider kit, and installed an engine, transmission, and exhaust system, rendering the glider kit an operable over-the-road semi-truck.

         The glider kit created a forty-foot blind spot directly behind the semi. But PACCAR did not include certain safety features-such as a rear-view window, a backup alarm, a backup camera, or backup flashers-to alleviate the dangers associated with the blind spot when the semi is reversed. And PACCAR and W&W disagree about whether PACCAR offered these features as options.

         The following year, W&W employee Raymond Miller was backing up the completed semi at a construction site. He felt a nudge, which is normally "nothing unusual." But he was immediately alerted by a man pounding on his window, urging him to pull forward. Construction foreman Rickey Brewer had been pinned between the back of the truck and a trailer and died from his injuries.

         Rickey's widow, Angela Brewer, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against PACCAR. She asserted, in part, a defective-design claim under the IPLA, [1]alleging that PACCAR's glider kit was unreasonably dangerous and defective because it lacked certain safety features and warnings relating to the blind spot.

         PACCAR moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty, as a matter of law, to install those safety features. To that end, PACCAR argued that it did not manufacture the completed semi and that the glider kit was not defective or unreasonably dangerous when it left PACCAR's control. In support, PACCAR included two affidavits from one of its engineers, who stated that safety features were options for buyers to order, and that PACCAR built the glider kit to W&W's design specifications.

         In response, Brewer argued that summary judgment was inappropriate. She reasoned that there was evidence the glider kit was defective under the IPLA because it lacked a rear-view window, a backup alarm, a backup camera, backup flashers, and warnings relating to the blind spot. In support, she designated evidence including testimony and a report prepared by an expert in auto-safety design. The expert opined that the glider kit was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous because it lacked adequate backup safety devices as standard installations.[2]

         The trial court held a hearing on both PACCAR's motion for summary judgment and Brewer's later cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Brewer argued in her cross-motion that under the IPLA, PACCAR owed a duty to Rickey as a bystander. The court granted PACCAR's motion for summary judgment and denied Brewer's cross-motion. Brewer appealed.

         The Court of Appeals reversed. It first held that summary judgment in PACCAR's favor was improper because "it should be a question of fact as to whether it was reasonable for PACCAR to put a product into the stream of commerce that lacked one or several" safety features. Brewer v. PACCAR, Inc., 98 N.E.3d 83, 93 (Ind.Ct.App.), aff'd on reh'g, 104 N.E.3d 625 (Ind.Ct.App. 2018). It then addressed Brewer's cross-motion for partial summary judgment, ...


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