Massachusetts: Summary Judgment For Manufacturer due to Plaintiff’s Lack of Causation

Recently, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted summary judgment in favor of a manufacturer of an injection molding machine on plaintiff’s claim that it was defectively manufactured, for lack of causation evidence. Brown v. Husky Injection Molding Sys., Inc., — F.Supp.2d —, No. 08-11840-RGS, 2010 WL 4638761 (D. Mass. Nov. 17, 2010). This case is interesting for the Court’s analysis of a manufacturing defect claim regarding a product that was manufactured and installed in the 1970s.

Defendant, Husky Injection Molding Systems, Inc. (“Husky”) manufactured a 1525 series injection molding machine with serial number 3350 (“3350 machine”) which was sold to WNA Comet East, Inc. (“Comet”) in 1974. Plaintiff, Jimmy Brown (“Brown”), began working for Comet as an injection molding machine operator in 2003. In 2006, while trying to clean the 3350 machine, his left hand got caught in the belt and pulley, suffering “crush injuries.” It was undisputed that the 1525 series was designed with a front pulley guard, and if it had been in place, the accident would not have happened. It was also undisputed that in 2000, Comet had “rebuilt the 3350 machine, stripping it to its base, and replacing or refurbishing constituent parts as needed.”

Brown asserted a claim against Husky alleging that the 3350 machine was defectively manufactured because Husky failed to install the front pulley guard. In response, Husky asserted that Brown had no evidence that the 3350 did not have the pulley guard when it was delivered to Comet. Husky filed a motion for summary judgment. In support of Husky’s position, the technician that installed the 3350 machine in 1974 testified that it had the front pulley guard when installed. In rebuttal, Brown offered testimony of a Comet employee that testified that he had never seen a guard on the 3350 machine. However, this employee did not begin working with these machines until 1976, two years after installation.

The Court first distinguished a claim for a design defect and a manufacturing defect. To prove the first, a plaintiff must only prove that a defect in the design existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control. To prove the latter, a plaintiff must show that the defect was caused by a manufacturing error affecting only one particular product and that it was not caused by intermediaries. The Court concluded that while Brown had testimony that no guard was on the machine in 1976, he could not rebut Husky’s installer’s testimony that at installation, a guard was on the machine. Further, Brown did not have testimony regarding the presence or absence of guards before and after the 2000 refurbishment. Therefore, the Court found that Brown could not prove causation and granted Husky’s motion for summary judgment.

This case exemplifies the difficulties in proving a manufacturing defect case, especially when a product is in the hands of an intermediary for a long period of time. Essentially, in this type of case, a plaintiff must be armed with testimony accounting for a product’s condition and non-alteration the entire period of time from the date it left the manufacturer’s control until the injury. Sometimes this can be extremely hard. But without that testimony, a defendant will be able to raise, like here, the potentially fatal absence of evidence of causation.

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