Tennessee Products Liability Claim Falls Short

A recent Court of Appeals case illustrates that trying to make a Tennessee product liability claim against a product that did not technically cause the injury can be quite difficult. In Long v. Quad Power Products, LLC, No. E2013-02708-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 20, 2015), plaintiff was injured while pressure testing a product at work. Plaintiff tried to turn a ball valve in the test, and when the valve would not turn he “used an extension or cheater bar to continue his attempt to relieve pressure.” A mechanism attached to the valve then broke, which caused extremely high-pressured water to hit plaintiff, injuring his left arm and shoulder. Plaintiff eventually had to have his left arm amputated. At the time of appeal, there was only one defendant remaining in the case: the distributor from whom plaintiff’s employer purchased the ball valve used in the testing system. According to this defendant, however, this ball valve would have only been in its possession for around 24 hours and was not “assembled, designed, manufactured, or altered” by defendant. After some procedural history, the case eventually boiled down to a strict liability failure to warn claim on which the trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

When granting summary judgment for defendant, the trial court made certain relevant findings of fact: that the “failed component was not a part of the valve sold by defendant;” that the ball valve had actually been removed from service several days before the accident because it was difficult to use, but that in violation of the employer’s own safety rules it was later put into the test panel used by plaintiff; that a “simple inspection” by the employee who put the valve in the test panel would have showed that it was corroded; and that if the employer “had properly supported the valve in its test panel, the stress in the connected components would not have been sufficient to cause the connecting components to fracture.” In affirming summary judgment, the Court of Appeals relied on these facts and addressed four issues raised by plaintiff.

First, plaintiff argued that there should have been a warning regarding using the ball valve at a higher level of pressure than it was designed to withstand. To succeed on this claim, plaintiff would have to show that the “alleged failure to warn was both the cause in fact and proximate cause of…injury.” In other words, plaintiff “would first have to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether ‘but for’ the lack of a warning from [defendant], [plaintiff’s] injury would not have happened.” As to this point, the Court pointed out that it was undisputed that the coupling attached to the ball valve, not the valve itself, broke and caused the injury. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the lack of warning about using higher pressure with the ball valve actually caused the injury.

Plaintiff’s second issue was that defendant should have warned about the danger of using the ball valve in a water system. Here, the alleged danger was that the valve would corrode and become hard to use. But the Court pointed out that, at the time of the injury, both the employer and plaintiff knew it was difficult to use—it had already been taken out of operation once and plaintiff was having difficulty getting the valve to operate. The Court of Appeals quoted the trial court’s finding that “a manufacturer or seller is not required to warn of a danger of which the user is or should be aware,” then held that plaintiff failed to present any genuine issue of material fact to counter proof that the employees “knew or should have known that the ball valve was difficult to open and close due to corrosion.”

The third issue raised by plaintiff was that the trial court improperly discounted plaintiff’s expert witness testimony. But the Court pointed out that while the expert opined about the types of warnings that should have been used, “he could not offer an expert opinion regarding what caused the reducing mechanism attached to the ball valve to break during [plaintiff’s] accident,” and thus failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding the cause of the injury.

Finally, plaintiff alleged that the trial court improperly found the employer’s actions to be an intervening cause of injury. The Court held, though, that despite the fact that workers’ compensation law prohibits an employer from being the “legal cause” of an employee’s injury in a case like this, “such immunity does not, however, prevent the trial court from finding [employer’s] actions to be the cause in fact of [plaintiff’s] injury.” Here, the employer had been in possession of the ball valve for three years, employees of employer knew it was difficult to use, and it was attached to the testing system that broke by employees of employer. The Court thus held that the trial court rightly found plaintiff’s employer to be an intervening cause of injury in this case.

At its core, this case came down to the facts that 1) the ball valve being litigated about was not the component piece that actually broke, and 2) the ball valve had already been removed from use because it was difficult to use but then somehow made its way back into a testing panel.

Tough case.  Predictable result.