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September 13, 2007

Eighth Circuit Rejects Products Liability Claims in Case Involving 60-Year-Old Printing Press

In Robinson v. Brandtjen & Kluge, Inc. (8th Cir. Sept. 11, 2007), the Eighth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgment by the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota in favor of the manufacturer of a printing press manufactured by B&K in 1939 in a products liability case brought by Robinson, who was injured while using the press in the course of her employment with Clark Printing in 2001.  The press, a Kluge 6 Roller Automatic Platen Printing Press, was sold to a newspaper in 1940.  Clark Printing acquired it over fifty years later.  In order to use it as a foil stamping press, Clark removed the automatic feed so that the press could be fed only manually by hand, a more efficient process for the short-run foil stamping jobs the company did.  The plaintiff was filling in for another employee and operating the press for the first time when she was injured when her caught hand became lodged between the two large surfaces of the press.  Along with her husband, she brought suit against B&K alleging that the machine was defectively designed and that B&K failed to warn of the defects in the machine.  The district court granted summary judgment to B&K on all claims.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Robinsons alleged that there were two defects in the press.  One was failure to include a detachable point-of-operation guard that would protect the user during manual operation of the press.  The second was failure to warn users not to feed the machine manually.  The issue, as stated by the Eighth Circuit, was “whether there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that the B&K press was defective when it was sold more than sixty-five years ago, in 1940.”  South Dakota adopted section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965) and the Restatement’s consumer expectation standard.  The Eighth Circuit noted that contemporary safety standards should not be superimposed on an earlier era, and that in determining whether a product was defective in an earlier period, “we look to evidence of the industry practice at the time, any direct evidence of what reasonable purchasers expected, and other evidence concerning injuries or knowledge of the dangers of the product in that time.”  In addition, South Dakota law provides that compliance with the state of the art prevailing at the time the product was initially sold may be considered in determining whether a product was defective.  S.D. Codified Laws § 20-9-10.1.

The court concluded that the evidence in the case was insufficient to justify a finding that the press was defective “in light of reasonable consumer expections of the time.”  The court noted in a footnote that it is not clear whether South Dakota has adopted or would adopt the risk-utility standard in addition to the consumer expectation test, but that the evidence was in any event insufficient under that standard.    The court also held that because the danger involved in putting one’s hand between two press plates “is sufficiently obvious that no warning is necessary.”   

Because the strict liability claims failed, the court held that the negligence claims necessarily failed also.  The remaining claim, negligent post-sale failure to warn, was also rejected by the court, because “[g]iven the passage of time, it would be unreasonable to require B&K to identify all owners of its platen presses.”  Post-sale failure to warn theory requires a finding that product sellers can practically and efficiently discharge a post-sale obligation to warn. 

MKS

September 13, 2007 | Permalink

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