Utah Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment in Case of Postal Worker vs. Mailbox Manufacturer

In Niemela v. Imperial Manufacturing, Inc., — P.3d —, No. 20100682, 2011 WL 4485978 (Utah Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2011), the Utah Court of Appeals reconsidered a trial court’s grant of summary judgment against a postal worker who sued the manufacturer of mailboxes.  Patricia Niemela delivered mail for the United States Postal Service in a neighborhood in which mailboxes installed by Imperial Manufacturing had been installed.  According to Niemela, the mailboxes were defectively designed and manufactured, allowing them to take on water and freeze when the temperature dropped.  She was forced to use tools to break up the ice, which allegedly caused her to sustain hand injuries.  As noted by the court, Niemela brought claims for strict liability, negligence, and breach of implied warranty against the manufacturer:

In her products liability claim, Niemela alleges that the Imperial mailboxes contained design and manufacturing defects rendering them unreasonably dangerous. She seeks to demonstrate these defects by showing that the mailboxes did not conform to the 2001 USPS regulations, notwithstanding the fact that the mailboxes were designed and manufactured in 1995. Imperial responds that (1) the mailboxes must be presumed nondefective because they complied with federal regulations in effect when they were designed and manufactured, and (2) Niemela has not presented sufficient evidence to overcome this presumption.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the entry of summary judgment against Niemela and reiterated the trial court’s reasoning.  At the time the mailboxes were manufactured, they complied with the USPS regulations.   Citing a statutory presumption from the Utah Code, the appellate court observed:

There is a rebuttable presumption that a product is free from any defect or defective condition where the alleged defect in the plans or designs for the product or the methods and techniques of manufacturing, inspecting and testing the product were in conformity with government standards established for that industry which were in existence at the time the plans or designs for the product or the methods and techniques of manufacturing, inspecting and testing the product were adopted.

In order to overcome the presumption, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the product is unreasonably dangerous.  Niemela could not do so, because her bald accusations about certain aspects of the mailbox were not supported.  In the end, all she had was an allegation that she was injured, and therefore there must have been something wrong with the mailboxes.  It was not enough.

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