Reversal: Peterbilt as parts supplier may bear liability in fatality

The Indiana Court of Appeals has overturned summary judgment for a national motor company on a defective design claim stemming from a construction foreman’s death after finding sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that the product in question was not defective.

In February 2015, Ohio-based W&W Transport ordered a glider kit from Peterbilt Motors Co., requesting a truck cab, chassis, wiring, drive axles, suspension system and partial braking and steering systems. W&W planned to assemble a full semi-tractor by combining the glider kit parts with an existing engine, transmission and exhaust system.

W&W did not request a rear window or backup camera with its glider kit, and those features were not included as part of Peterbilt’s standard package. Though W&W did request wiring to install a beacon/strobe light, it ultimately chose not to install the light.

After constructing the truck, W&W deployed Raymond Miller to drive the truck to an Indianapolis Power & Light plant under construction in Martinsville in March 2016. While backing up the truck, Miller failed to see Rickey Brewer, the construction foreman, standing behind the truck and, thus, pinned Brewer between the truck and a trailer, killing him.

Brewer’s widow, Angela Brewer, filed multiple claims against multiple parties, including a claim against Peterbilt that alleged the glider kit was unreasonably dangerous and defective because it lacked safety features for backing up. Peterbilt moved for summary judgment and argued that it did not manufacture the truck, nor did it provide defective parts.

In response, Brewer designated an expert report opining that the glider kit was defective, then cross-moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of the duty owed to her husband. The Morgan Circuit Court ruled in Peterbilt’s favor on both motions, then denied a subsequent motion to correct error.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court’s ruling and reversed the grant of summary judgment to Peterbilt in a Tuesday opinion. Judge Michael Barnes wrote for the unanimous panel that Brewer’s expert report presented sufficient evidence to rebut any presumption that the glider kit was not defective.

Considering the glider kit lacked only a powertrain, Barnes wrote that “in any conceivable use, the completed semi-tractor would have a large blind spot directly behind it that foreseeable could lead to precisely the type of tragedy that occurred here.” Further, even if W&W knowingly rejected the optional safety features, that does not necessarily mean Peterbilt was absolved of all responsibility for those missing features.

“In other words, it should be a question of fact as to whether it was reasonable for PACCAR to put a product into the stream of commerce that lacked one or several or all of those features,” Barnes said. “… It would all depend upon a fact-finder’s determination of whether (Peterbilt’s) decision to make a certain feature optional rather than standard was a reasonable decision under the circumstances.”

The panel also found that under Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act, responsibility for the truck’s safety or Brewer’s death could fall to both Peterbilt and W&W. The assignment of fault is also one for the jury, Barnes said, particularly as it relates to the question of proximate cause.

Thus, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment to Peterbilt and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appellate panel also noted that Rickey Brewer was considered a “consumer” and “bystander” of Peterbilt’s product, making the IPLA applicable to his widow’s claims against the company.

Though Judge Paul Mathias concurred with Barnes’ opinion, he wrote separately to note that Peterbilt’s argument actually amounted to a sophisticated user defense.

“… (I)n my view, W&W, a sophisticated user, was well aware of any potential danger posed by (Peterbilt’s) glider kit when it assembled the semi-tractor,” Mathias wrote.

The case is Angela Brewer, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Rickey A. Brewer, Deceased v. PACCAR, Inc., d/b/a Peterbilt Motors Co., 55A05-1709-CT-2168.

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