A recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in a products liability case has potential significant ramifications for the liability of manufacturers. In Hatch v. Trail King Industries, Inc., 656 F.3d 59 (2011), the Plaintiff, Dean Hatch, brought claims for devastating injuries he sustained when a trailer gate on the back of a trailer released and pinned the Plaintiff beneath it. The Plaintiff suffered severe injuries, including being paralyzed from the chest down. Trail King Industries, Inc. manufactured the trailer per the exact design and specifications of Advance Drainage Systems (“ADS”), the Plaintiff’s employer. The trailer was a specialized trailer made for ADS and ADS was the exclusive user of these trailers.
The Plaintiff brought claims against Trail King for negligence and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. The Plaintiff alleged that the design of the hydraulically operated drop gate of the trailer was defective and that the addition of an inexpensive fixed safety chain or an extended spring-loaded pin would have prevented the accident.
The case went to trial and the jury found for Trial King on both theories of negligence and the implied warranty of merchantability. On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that Judge Stearns erred in instructing the jury on Massachusetts law. Judge Stearns instructed the jury that a defendant who manufactures a product according to the buyer’s specifications could not be liable under either a negligence or implied warranty theory unless the design defect was so obvious that it would not have been reasonable for the defendant to manufacture a product according to the buyer’s specifications.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals, applying Massachusetts law, found that there the jury instructions were correct. As such, the jury could have found that Trail King was not liable to the Plaintiff under a theory of a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability since Trail King designed the trailer in accordance with the exact design specifications provided by the Plaintiff’s employer. In the opinion, the First Circuit referred to comment (a) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts §404:
In such a case, the contractor is not required to sit in judgment on the plans and specifications or the materials provided by his employer. The contractor is not subject to liability if the specified design or material turns out to be insufficient to make the chattel safe for use, unless it is so obviously bad that a competent contractor would realize that there was a grave chance that his product would be dangerously unsafe.
As such, the First Circuit found that Judge Stearns’ instructions to the jury captured the state of the law and were not error as presented.
This case appears to be a deviation from the usual strict liability analysis for the liability of manufacturers in products liability cases in that the First Circuit focused on the reasonableness of the manufacturer in following the specifications provided by the purchaser of the product. Given that products are often manufactured per the exact specifications of the purchaser, this decision may have an impact on the liability of manufacturers in similar circumstances.