The Crown RM6000 is a stand-up rider forklift designed to lift and move palleted materials in narrow warehouse aisles. To operate it, the driver stands sideways with his hands on the controls and leans against a backrest. The forks are located to the user’s right, and the operator compartment is open (i.e., there is no door) to the user’s left. To move the forklift, the operator moves the multi-task handle in the desired direction of travel. But movement is impossible unless (1) the operator’s left foot is depressing the brake pedal and (2) the operator’s right foot is in contact with the sensor pad. Once in motion, the operator can activate the brake by raising his left heel. The forklift can also be slowed or stopped using a technique called “plugging” where the operator pulls the multi-task handle in the opposite direction of the direction of travel. At the end of a work shift, Dawson Vallee attempted to park a Crown RM6000 forklift. But he lost control. He first attempted to “plug” the forklift to stop it and next attempted to apply the brakes by raising his left foot. Neither attempt worked. The forklift jerked him around and tossed his leg around the outside of the machine. While his left leg was exposed, the forklift collided with a pole and crushed his left foot between the pole and the forklift. Tragically, this led to the amputation of Vallee’s left leg below the knee. The district court granted summary judgment on the design defect claims, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Confirming that Louisiana law allows plaintiffs to proffer multiple alternative designs, the Court nevertheless found that the proffered alternatives were not sufficiently specific:
Vallee’s experts first opined that the addition of a safety door on the operator compartment is a reasonably available alternative design that would have virtually eliminated the risk of the injury suffered by the plaintiff. Dr. John Meyer included in his report six different photographs of forklifts with doors manufactured by Crown or its competitors. Meyer stated that these photographs illustrate a variety of stand-up forklifts displaying a number of different door designs and features. But he did not include specifications regarding the actual designs (e.g., door dimensions, composition, attachment methods, etc.). Dr. Richard Ziernicki stated in his report that Crown should have provided the forklift with a spring assisted or latching door, or operator guard as standard guarding equipment. He claimed latching and spring loaded and even interlocked doors, or operator guards were all technologically and economically feasible. Finally, Ziernicki surveyed multiple door designs from Crown’s competitors and included several photographs. But, like Meyer, he did not include specifications to accompany the photos in his report. The LPLA requires more detail. Neither expert included technical drawings or calculations to accompany their suggested alternative addition-of-a-door designs. And neither discussed how their safety door alternatives would actually apply to the specific forklift in question here — the RM6000. Thus, the proposed safety door alternative doesn’t satisfy the LPLA’s requirements.
Second, the plaintiff’s experts proposed modifying the foot-pedal braking system. Meyer proposed reprogramming the foot pedals on the floor of the Crown forklift by swapping the existing pedals, so that the brake is applied by the right foot, rather than the left. To illustrate this, he included two diagrams of the existing design with arrows labeling where the new pedal would go. He acknowledged that, although he hadn’t addressed any minimal changes in the shape and/or position of the pedals themselves, one could expect that minor ergonomic adjustments could occur to maximize the effectiveness of the new pedal layout. Further, Meyer suggested another potential alternative design of the foot pedals. For this alternative, he pointed to a pushdown brake used by a different forklift manufacturer. Meyer asserted his belief that the addition of a door is required to achieve acceptable risk, whereas the foot-pedal modifications merely could have prevented Mr. Vallee’s accident from occurring. Ziernicki, by contrast, stated that he would support either having the brake under both feet with the operator trained to use the right foot, or having a pushdown brake with placement sensors to encourage proper operator positioning of both feet. Once again, neither expert included any specific details to support their alternative foot-pedal design concepts. Meyer’s two diagrams amounted to pictures of the design that already exists, and he recognized that he did not actually address the effects of his proposed foot-pedal designs to the RM6000. And Ziernicki included no detail whatsoever. Thus, the experts’ proposed foot-pedal-modification alternatives also do not satisfy the LPLA’s requirements.
Finally, Vallee’s experts proposed the addition of a backrest presence sensor that detects when an operator is in the normal position, and ensures that the travel circuit is disconnected when this position is not maintained. But the record is clear that Vallee’s back remained against the backrest during the incident. That means he cannot show that any form of backrest sensor was capable of preventing his damages.
Vallee v. Crown Equipment Corp., No.22-30053 (5th Cir. April 14, 2023).