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The EDPA Grants Summary Judgment In Products Liability Case In Favor Of Entity That Only Prepared Product’s Specifications (PA)

October 29, 2020

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Zielinski-v.-Mega-Manufacturing-Inc.pdf">Zielinski v. Mega Manufacturing Inc</a>,</em> the court granted summary judgment to the manufacturers of two pieces of equipment used in the processing of sheet metal, where one defendant prepared specifications to construct the allegedly-defect product, but did not actually manufacture or supply it.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">By way of background, Robert Zielinski was employed as a machine operator at a U-Haul manufacturing facility. On October 16, 2017, Zielinski was operating a Whitney 3400 XP machine to punch or stamp sheet metal. While doing so, an adjacent table being used to store metal sheets upended, causing the metal sheets to fall on Zielinski, killing him. The Whitney machine was manufactured by Mega. When U-Haul purchased the machine, Mega informed it that “Customer must supply tables or material handling devices for raw material and finished parts. Mega will supply the necessary information to build these tables.” Although Mega prepared engineering drawings for U-Haul that provided specifications to guide the design and construction of a table, it did not build the table, certify the table, or otherwise take responsibility for the table. Rather than construct a table, U-Haul purchased a scissor-lift table from Econo Lift that was “consistent” with the specifications that Mega provided.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Econo Lift’s specifications called for the table to be anchored to the floor. The table contained a warning that read “PLACE LOAD ON CENTER OF TABLE.” The owner’s manual advised “Position load, so it will be centered.” U-Haul did not follow Econo Lift’s instructions. It modified the table by welding four caster wheels to the bottom frame rather than anchoring it to the floor and by welding extensions to the table. These modifications covered up the warning label. The Whitney machine was fitted with an optional piece of equipment called a PartHANDLER-II that was used to pick up raw metal sheets and place them on the machine to be stamped or punched. The PartHANDLER-II could also be used to remove finished sheets from the machine and load them onto the table. At the time of the accident, Zielinski was not using the PartHandler-II. Instead, he was loading and unloading the metal sheets manually, and using the Econo Lift scissor-lift table to stack both raw sheet metal and the finished product. While Zielinski was transferring finished sheets from the Whitney machine onto the scissor-lift table, the table upended, causing the sheets to fall on top of him. There was no evidence of what caused the able to upend. Although Mega trained U-Haul employees on the Whitney machine’s use and serviced the machine, there was no evidence that Mega or Econo Lift authorized, or even evaluated the modifications to the scissor-lift table.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Both Mega and Econo Lift moved for summary judgment. Zielinski’s widow, Deborah, did not oppose Econo Lift’s motion, but she did oppose Mega’s motion. She contended that Mega was liable – not for an injury caused by its own product – but because it failed to warn her husband about the use of the table in connection with its work. In granting Mega’s motion for summary judgment, the court held that a company that did not manufacture or supply the allegedly defective product is not liable under a theory of strict liability or failure to warn. Even if the scissor-lift table caused Zielinski’s injuries when it tipped, Mega did not manufacture, supply, sell, or even recommend the table. The fact that Mega provided U-Haul with specifications does not render it strictly liable. The specifications did not recommend a specific table, nor did they expressly or impliedly approve the Econo Lift table, or even a scissor-lift table more generally. Mega did not have a duty to warn simply because it specified the size of the table that would make the PartHANDLER-II work. In fact, Mega did not even require its customer to utilize material tables. They could stack the sheets on the floor.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The court also held that Deborah Zielinski proffered no evidence that the alleged defect – the lack of a warning – was the proximate cause of death. There was no evidence as to what caused the scissor-lift table to upend. The court posited that U-Haul’s decision to weld casters to the bottom of the table, rather than anchor it to the ground, and its decision to weld extensions to the sides of the able, thereby altering its center of gravity, was just as likely to have caused the table to tip. Without any evidence, Plaintiff could not establish that the existence of a warning would have caused her husband to act differently than he did.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Under Pennsylvania law the standard for establishing a strict liability claim was designed to be satisfied more easily than that for a negligence claim. Plaintiff’s negligence claim was based on Mega’s alleged failure to warn about the dangers of using the scissor-lift table that a different manufacturer – Econo Lift – made. Because Mega had no duty to warn about the use of table it did not manufacture, supply, or sell, Plaintiff’s negligence claim failed for the same reason as her strict liability claim. As with her strict liability claim, the court also held that Plaintiff was unable to establish that the breach of a duty – the lack of warning – caused her husband’s death because there was no evidence in the record that demonstrated that a warning would have lead Zielinski to act differently.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The court’s reasoning in this case appears to be a straightforward application of Pennsylvania products liability law to a rather favorable set of facts for the defendants: Mega did not manufacture or supply the allegedly defective Econo Lift scissor-lift table, and Zielinski’s employer modified the table after purchasing it. The court notes that the scissor-lift table was “consistent” with Mega’s specifications, with explaining how. Left unanswered is the question of what would have happened had U-Haul constructed a materials table that complied exactly with Mega’s specifications. Under those circumstances, it is unclear whether Mega would still escape liability for defective product that it did not manufacture or supply, but which was built to its express specifications.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Jim Scott for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please contact <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen Hayes</a>.</p>

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