Key Decisions

August 2013 – A Manufacturer Was Not Liable For Injuries

(filed under: Key Decisions | August 16, 2013)

A Manufacturer Was Not Liable For Injuries

Sanchez v. Hitachi Koki Co., Ltd.
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed July 9, 2013, published July 9, 2013

KEY FACTS

Andres Sanchez cut himself when he tried to use an angle grinder fitted with a saw blade rather than a grinding disk. The grinder’s safety instructions and manual expressly warned against such a practice.

Sanchez sued Hitachi, the grinder’s manufacturer.

Hitachi moved for summary judgment, arguing that under O’Neil v. Crane Co. 53 Cal.4th 335 (2012), it could not be liable for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product unless its own product contributed substantially to the harm, or it participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products. Hitachi asserted that it had not manufactured the saw blade, that the grinder did not require the use of the saw blade, and that Sanchez and his wife’s own expert conceded that the grinder was not intended to be used with a saw blade. Hitachi pointed to two separate written warnings advising consumers never to use a saw blade with the grinder, so it argued it had no duty to warn Sanchez about not using a saw blade with the grinder or to provide kickback prevention for a product not intended to be used with the grinder.

The trial court granted Hitachi’s motion.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The court rejected Sanchez’s attempts to distinguish O’Neil.  In O’Neil, the Supreme Court held that a valve manufacturer was not liable for asbestos injuries caused by asbestos exposure when the asbestos was manufactured by another company and then applied to the valve. Sanchez asserted that unlike the situation in O’Neil, where the valve was not itself dangerous, the grinder was. However, the court dismissed this assertion, noting: “Sanchez was not injured by any intended use of the grinder, and he may not predicate his claims on the speculative harm that might have befallen someone else, putting the grinder to its intended use.” It then stated: “Imposing liability under the circumstances here would convert strict liability into ‘absolute liability’ for product manufacturers.”

The court also rejected Sanchez’s argument that the grinder contributed substantially to the accident because it was defectively designed, saying: “[A] product substantially contributes to the harm suffered by a plaintiff only where the intended use of that product inevitably resulted in the harm.”

The court next rejected Sanchez’s argument that Hitachi participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products, because it knew that consumers used saw blades with the Hitachi grinder and failed to take steps to reduce or prevent that misuse. O’Neil, however, stated that a product manufacturer participates substantially in creating a harmful combined use only if it specifically designs its product for the combined use. The grinder was not specifically designed to use a saw blade.

ANALYSIS

This result takes O’Neil one step further. Some would argue that putting a saw blade on an angle grinder should be deemed 100% comparatively negligent as a matter of law. However, given O’Neil, the court did not need to reach that issue.