Appeal heard in fatal trucking product liability case

The Indiana Supreme Court heard oral argument Thursday morning on a product liability case, hearing a national motor company’s appeal in a matter involving a worker’s death that includes defective design claims.

In February 2015, Ohio-based W&W Transport ordered a glider kit from PACCAR Motors Co., requesting components that would eventually be assembled into a full semi-tractor trailer with a sleeper cab. W&W planned to combine the glider kit parts with an existing engine, transmission and exhaust system to create the tractor trailer.

Neither a rear window or backup camera were requested by W&W to be included in the gilder kit. Wiring was included for the installation of a flashing warning light, but W&W ultimately chose not to install it.

In March 2016, the completed truck was driven to an Indianapolis Power & Light plant under construction in Martinsville. While backing up the truck, the driver failed to see IPL construction foreman Rickey Brewer standing behind the truck. Brewer was then killed as he was pinned between the truck and its trailer.

On grant of transfer, PACCAR argued that the Indiana Court of Appeals’ reversal of the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to PACCAR improperly placed duty and responsibility for safety options on the component manufacturer and not the final manufacturer in Angela Brewer v. Peterbilt Motors Co.-Paccar, Inc., 18S-CT-00451.

Specifically, PACCAR argued in its petition to transfer that the final manufacturer should be liable because they have the exclusive knowledge and control of the final product, not the component provider.

“The question in this case is not about whether appropriate safety features should be installed on a product — it’s undisputed they should — the question is where in the manufacturing spectrum should the duty to install those features be placed,” PACCAR counsel Maggie Smith said.

Counsel for PACCAR contended that the glider kit was an incomplete product as described by federal regulations, leaving PACCAR out of control of the final manufacturing and use of the completed product that ultimately killed Rickey Brewer.

“It is expressly contemplated that a Glider Kit will not be used in the condition in which it is delivered and that it will be customized and modified as part of the final manufacturing process before being placed into use by the purchaser,” PACCAR’s petition to transfer stated.

“At the end of the day, federal regulations say that it’s the final manufacturer that has to certify this product is safe and meets all the requirements,” Smith said. “PACCAR is not the final manufacturer here.”

Smith also argued safety features should be configured based on a truck’s ultimate work environment determined by the final manufacturer. For example, if the truck is in a “very dusty, muddy circumstance,” Smith said a backup camera would be “completely irrelevant as a safety device” because the camera would be caked with dust and mud.

After listing several installable safety options, Smith noted that “unless and until you know the use that the final product is going to be in,” it cannot be determined which safety feature should be used.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush questioned that assertion, saying she doesn’t know “a use for a truck that wouldn’t be backed up.” Rush added that “zero safety features” were included in the glider kit, even though all trucks inevitably back up.

Counsel for PACCAR concluded with a request for the high court to adopt a bright-line rule of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Product Liability. 

On rebuttal, appellant counsel John Daly countered that the product was simply defective in itself when the glider kit left PACCAR’s control by failing to include a backup camera addressing blind spots, a backup alarm, flashing lights, internal and external warnings of a blind spot and a backup window.

“Cameras are now required as a matter of federal law on all passenger vehicles, but they’re not required on semis,” Daly said. “If we succeed, this will result in every truck manufacturer putting backup cameras on their products, and I think it will save lives. This is a really important case.”Thursday’s oral argument can be viewed here.

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