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Prentis v. Yale Mfg. Co

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiff, Prentis (Plaintiff), was injured when the forklift he was operating experienced a power surge, causing Plaintiff to fall to the ground. Plaintiff sued the Defendant, Yale Mfg. Co. (Defendant), claiming a defect in design because the forklift did not provide a seat or platform for the operator.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In an action against the manufacturer of a product based upon an alleged design defect, breach of implied warranty and negligence require proof of the same elements and use of identical evidence.

    Facts. Plaintiff was operating a forklift manufactured by the Defendant. The forklift was a stand-up type, rather than a traditional sit down model. The forklift was equipped with a “dead-man” switch, intended to prevent it from moving if the operator let go of the controls. Plaintiff testified that he was aware that the battery was running low on the forklift when the accident occurred. Plaintiff attempted to start the machine on an incline and when the machine experienced a power surge it caused Defendant to fall to the ground. The fall fractured Plaintiff’s hip. Plaintiff brought suit, alleging a defect in design of the forklift because it did not provide a seat or platform for the operator.

    Issue. Did the trial court err by not instructing the jury on a breach of warranty theory in addition to a negligent design theory?

    Held. No. Judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and judgment of the trial court is reinstated.
    * Theories of products liability should never be confused with the imposition of absolute liability. Regardless of whether a plaintiff is suing on a theory of negligence or implied warranty, the plaintiff must prove that something is wrong with the product itself that makes it dangerous. Actions claiming defects in product design do not provide for a simple test.
    * Four approaches have been popularized in determining a defect in product design cases. Negligent risk-utility analysis focuses on if the manufacturer would be judged negligent if it had known of the dangerous condition when the product was marketed. A second analysis compares the risk and utility of the product at the time of trial. A third analysis focuses on the consumer expectations for a product. The final analysis combines the risk-utility and the consumer expectation analyses.
    * The risk-utility balancing test is essentially a negligence standard, analyzing if the manufacturer exposed the consumer to a greater risk than he should have in choosing a particular design. This approach is supported by the Model Uniform Product Liability Act (UPLA), published by the Department of Commerce in 1979. This approach has much support for design defects. First, design defects, unlike manufacturing defects, result from documentable decisions by manufacturers that plaintiffs should be able to learn of through discovery. Second, a negligence standard in these cases encourages the design of safer products. Third, a verdict for the plaintiff in a design defect case is essentially a ruling that the entire product line is defective, depriving the public of the product. Finally, the court believes that such a fault system provides for greater intrinsic fairness.
    * Because the standards for a breach of warranty claim and a design defect claim are interchangeable, it would have only confused the jury to provide an instruction on each, therefore, the trial court did not commit reversible error by providing only a unified theory of negligent design.
    Concurrence. Chief Justice Williams and Justices Brickley and Ryan concur. Justice Cavanagh concurs in the result.

    Discussion. The pure negligence, risk-utility standard adopted by the Court in this case is applicable only to defective design cases and does not apply to defective manufacture cases.



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