In reviewing a ruling on a motion for summary judgment that found that a component manufacturer owed no duty to install safety features, the Supreme Court of Indiana answered a narrow question that shifts the landscape for product liability litigation pursuant to the Indiana Product Liability Act (IPLA). Brewer v. PACCAR, Inc., 2019 Ind. LEXIS 428, involved a wrongful death claim against PACCAR, Inc. (PACCAR), the manufacturer of a glider kit that is installed on semi-trucks. The glider kit comes with a variety of optional safety features, provided they are specifically requested by the semi-truck manufacturer that integrates the kit into its end product.
The underlying lawsuit alleged that the glider kit was defective because it had a forty-foot blind spot behind it. According to Angela Brewer (Brewer), the driver of a semi-truck crushed and killed her husband while backing up a semi-truck equipped with the glider kit. Notably, the glider kit was not installed with any of the safety features offered by PACCAR. According to Brewer, the absence of these safety features rendered the glider kit unreasonably dangerous – and defective by design – because of the 40-foot blind spot hazard it created. The crux of the case was whether the safety features that mitigated the blind spot hazard were required, as opposed to optional. If the safety features were optional, it relieved PACCAR, the component manufacturer, of liability under the IPLA. In somewhat circuitous fashion, the Supreme Court of Indiana found that the trier of fact should determine the question of whether PACCAR was required to include the safety features with its glider kit.
In basic terms, the IPLA creates three product liability causes of action: (1) a design defect action; (2) a manufacturing defect action; and (3) a defective warning action. Brewer asserted a design defect claim, which required a showing that PACCAR owed a duty to her husband to install certain safety features with its glider kit. The court began its analysis by examining the IPLA itself, which subjects a component manufacturer to liability if its product is in a “defective condition unreasonably dangerous to any user or consumer.” I.C. §34-20-2-1.
Under pre-Brewer IPLA law, component-part manufacturers may have no duty, as a matter of law, to install safety features when the component can be put to a variety of uses. In this situation, the duty to install safety features falls on the final manufacturer, who is in a better position to anticipate and guard against hazards. The issue the court addressed in Brewer was whether the manufacturer of a component part with only one foreseeable use has a duty, as a matter of law, to install features necessary for the safe use of the end product.
Addressing this issue of first impression, the court held that:
under the IPLA, a manufacturer who produces a component part with only one reasonably foreseeable use has no duty, as a matter of law, to install safety features if: (1) the final manufacturer was offered the safety features and declined them; or (2) the component part, once integrated, can be used safely without those safety features.
Although PACCAR argued that it had no duty to provide safety features as a matter of law, the court disagreed. With respect to the first scenario, the court found that there was a dispute as to whether PACCAR offered, and the end-user actually rejected, certain safety features. As for the second scenario, the court found that there was a factual dispute regarding whether the glider could be used in any situation without the safety features that were allegedly necessary to guard against its inherent hazards. Because PACCAR failed to establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact for either condition, the court held that PACCAR was not entitled to summary judgment.
Subrogation professionals practicing in Indiana should keep the Brewer case in mind when handling product liability claims. When considering whether to bring a design defect claim against a component manufacturer, subrogation professionals should be aware of the duty defenses that may be asserted. If you are able to recognize these potential defenses early in the investigation, you will be better equipped to gather the necessary evidence to rebut such defenses. Additionally, subrogation professionals should be aware that addressing a component part manufacturer’s defenses will likely require expert testimony. Having a properly qualified expert involved early in the case will help ensure that the most salient technical issues are correctly evaluated.