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Indiana Supreme Court Finds Proven Misuse a Complete Defense to Product Liability Claim

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By: Codie J. Ross

November 13, 2018

Generally the law of products liability in Indiana is governed by the Indiana Products Liability Act (“IPLA”), which governs all actions brought by a user or consumer against a manufacturer or seller for physical harm caused by a product regardless of the theory of liability.  In a case impacting the IPLA, the state Supreme Court recently found that a tool manufacturer was not liable for injuries to a man who lost his eye while using the manufacturer’s product.  The Justices determined that the man’s misuse of the tool in question was the cause of his injuries and was a complete defense to his product liability claim.

The case of Campbell Hausfeld / Scott Fetzer Company v. Paul Johnson, 18S-CT-548, originated when the Plaintiff, Paul Johnson, purchased a mini air die grinder from Campbell Hausfeld and used it to work on the headlights of a truck. The grinder came with various instructions, including instructions to wear safety glasses, to only use attachments rated for a minimum of 25,000 RPM and not to use a cut-off disc mandrel on the grinder without a safety guard. The instructions also warned of the risk of injury if the user did not follow protocols.

Despite the warnings, Johnson used a mandrel to attach a cut-off disc, which was rated lower than 25,000 RPM. He also wore only his prescription glasses—instead of safety glasses—as he used the grinder. The cut-off disc eventually came apart and struck the left side of Johnson’s face, causing him to lose his left eye.

In suing Campbell Hausfeld, Johnson alleged failure to warn and defective design claims under the IPLA. The tool manufacturer moved for summary judgment, arguing Johnson’s misuse of the tool was a complete defense.  After losing on appeal, Campbell Hausfeld sought transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court, and found the Justices agreeable to its argument.

“Prior to and since the 1995 Amendments, the other two statutory defenses that remain — incurred risk and alteration — have been treated as complete ones,” Justice Steven David wrote, referencing amendments to the IPLA. “… It does not make sense that these two defenses are complete bars, even after the amendments, but that misuse is only a consideration after the amendments. This would violate the doctrine of in pari materia — that statutes relating to the same subject matter should be construed together to produce a harmonious statutory scheme.”

The High Court determined that Johnson’s misuse of the tool was proven, noting his failure to wear proper safety glasses and use of a cut-off disk without a safety guard and below the minimum RPM rating. According to the Court, those missteps were the cause of his injuries.  Further, the Court found that it should not be reasonably expected by the manufacturer that a user would disregard all three of the provided safety instructions.

The Court’s determination adds more clarity to the IPLA, and provides a stronger defense for manufacturers whose products are not used in conjunction with clear safety instructions and warnings.  If you have any questions regarding this decision or the Indiana Products Liability Act, please contact any member of our Products Liability Practice Group.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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