U.S. Fifth Circuit Affirms Jury Verdict Against Crane Manufacturer for Failure to Warn

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The plaintiff was seriously injured while operating a crane that started to tip when one of the crane’s counter-weights fell onto the cab, and knocked him to the ground.

On appeal, the manufacturer argued that the warning about the general hazards of tipping over (severe injury or death, for example) – combined with the instructions about how to avoid a tip-over – was adequate. But the jury found that the defendant should have warned about the specific hazard that counterweights could fall during a tip-over.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit, applying Mississippi law, affirmed: “Typically, the jury is responsible for evaluating a warning’s adequacy. Here, the jury had a sufficient evidentiary basis for finding Manitowoc’s warning inadequate. Manitowoc knew that counterweights could fall during a tip-over but failed to mention it in the Manual. Also, crane operators were apparently unaware of the falling counterweight hazard. Plus, the jury could have found Manitowoc’s purported compliance with industry standards insufficient to render the warning adequate. We are unwilling to supplant the jury’s conclusion about the warning’s adequacy with our own – especially when we are so far removed from the witnesses and evidence.”

As to the issue of proximate cause, the defendant argued (a) no alternative warning would have prevented the injury, and/or (b) misuse.

The plaintiffs did, in fact, propose an alternative warning at trial. “Many questions surround an alternative warning’s efficacy. Where would it have been placed? Would operators have noticed it? Did it adequately advise operators how to avoid the falling counterweight hazard? And there is, of course, speculation involved in predicting whether John would have followed the warning and safely exited the operator’s cab. We must trust, however, that the jury considered these issues in evaluating whether an alternative warning would have reduced the likelihood of John severely injuring himself during the tip-over. Based on the testimony of other crane operators and Dr. Singhose, the jury could have inferred that an alternative warning would have prompted John to exit the operator’s cab during a tip-over. In other words, given the potentially severe harm of remaining in the cab, the jury could have predicted that—had he known of the falling-counterweight danger—John would have followed his ‘common sense’ and swiftly exited before a counterweight struck the cab. Our reservations about the warning notwithstanding, we are unwilling to hold as a matter of law that an alternative warning would have been ineffective.”

As to the issue of misuse, the Court notes that, in order to bar recovery, the misuse must be unforeseeable. “Generally, the jury should answer the misuse question. Our role is to decide whether the jury had a sufficient evidentiary basis to find for Williams. We view the record evidence in the light most favorable to her, drawing reasonable inferences in her favor and remaining agnostic about the credibility and weight of the evidence. Nothing demonstrates ‘the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly’ in Manitowoc’s favor that ‘reasonable jurors could not have arrived at a contrary verdict.’ Contrary to Manitowoc’s suggestion, this situation is a far cry from Mine Safety. There, the plaintiff conceded that he misused the product. Here, Williams rebutted the misuse arguments by citing testimony and record evidence that the jury heard before reaching a verdict. And, on top of that, this record evidence supports finding that Manitowoc could reasonably foresee John’s alleged misuse.”

The Court also rejected the manufacturer’s argument that the plaintiff’s expert, who was qualified to testify re mechanical engineering, human factors, and warnings, should not have been qualified as a warnings expert. “Dr. Singhose is an experienced mechanical engineering professor who has conducted research and taught courses relating to hazard analysis and human–machine interactions. He has worked with cranes and crane controls for the past two decades. He has also designed small-scale cranes and drafted accompanying safety warnings. Over his lengthy career, he has researched and read warnings about many types of cranes. And he understands industry standards for warnings.”

Finally, the Court found no reversible error in the trial court’s admission of evidence regarding other accidents involving “similar circumstances and a similarly designed crane. Both models were equipped with identical counterweights that were similarly positioned, and both accidents involved unsecured counterweights falling toward the cab during a tip-over. As the district court recognized, admitting evidence regarding the prior accidents was relevant to determining what Manitowoc ‘knew, or in light of reasonably available information should have known, about the alleged danger’ that Williams asserts caused the injuries. This is central to a failure-to-warn claim. Also, as the district court acknowledged, the degree of similarity between the models (and the circumstances surrounding the accidents) speaks to the weight of the evidence—not the admissibility.”

 

Williams v. Manitowoc Cranes, No.17-60458, 2018 WL 3716251 (5th Cir. Aug. 3, 2018).

 

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