The Case of the Reconditioned Lawnmower and Implications on Strict Liability

As we all know, a finding by a jury that a product is unreasonably dangerous will cause the manufacturer to be held strictly liable for any injuries the product causes. But what happens when the product itself has been used, “reconditioned,” and sold to someone else?
This was the question considered by the Seventh Circuit in Malen v. MTD Products, et al., No. 08-3855, 2010 WL 4670176 (7th Cir. 2010). Malen bought a Yard-Man riding lawnmower from Home Depot which was manufactured by MTD Products. The lawnmower was marketed by Home Depot as having been “reconditioned,” and the product came with a warranty. Malen took the lawnmower home and used it between 30 and 50 times without incident. One day, while mulching leaves, the lawnmower became wedged up against a curb and Malen couldn’t dislodge it. So, he stood up and tried to get off the lawnmower. There was conflicting information about the exact sequence of events, but it is undisputed that the blade of the lawnmower cut Malen’s foot, and he suffered permanent injuries.
According to industry standards, the lawnmower should have been equipped with two separate safety features–one that stopped the lawnmower blade if the operator stood up from the seat, and another that stopped the blade if the lawnmower was put into reverse. It was undisputed that at the time Malen test drove the lawnmower at Home Depot, the reverse safety function was not operational. Furthermore, it was uncontested that the blade did not stop when Malen stood up from the seat on the day of the accident.
As the Seventh Circuit pointed out, “Manufacturers and sellers are strictly liable for injuries caused by unreasonably dangerous products unless an unforeseen alteration by a third party introduced the unsafe condition.” Second, the court acknowledged that when products are used and sold “as is,” any unforeseen defects introduced by prior owners cannot be attributed to manufacturers and sellers. Both Home Depot and MTD attempted to show that the product had been altered by the first owner of the mower, by Malen, or by some other “nefarious person.” The court was not convinced.
It was, however, a case of first impression as to how Illinois courts would treat products that had been “reconditioned.” By reconditioning a product, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, is different than simply repairing a product, and in its opinion “extends the useful life beyond what was contemplated at the point of manufacture and effectively creates a new product.” The Seventh Circuit surmised that, as they have before, Illinois courts would follow the Restatement (Third) of Torts and apply strict liability in the case of re-manufactured products. On this basis, the Seventh Circuit found that the lawnmower, by failing to have the requisite safety measures in place, could be found unreasonably dangerous.
The court also concluded that a jury could find that the lawnmower was defectively designed, and the proximate cause of Malen’s injury on negligence theories. It reversed the grant of summary judgment for MTD and Home Depot, and remanded the whole case.
In this case, there was evidence that the safety measures were not properly connected or installed before the lawnmower was sold to its first owner. However, the decision has serious implications for manufacturers of products which are then “reconditioned” by someone else, and perhaps warranted by the retailer. If the reconditioned product later causes injury, the manufacturer may eventually be released from liability, but it obviously won’t prevent the manufacturer from being sued and forced to engage in expensive discovery as to the original condition and/or design of the product, and as to what modifications and/or repairs were performed on the product prior to resale, without the manufacturer’s knowledge and without compliance to the specifications of the manufacturer. All for the re-sale of a product for which the manufacturer saw no profits.

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