Widow can’t sue truck maker, parts manufacturer for fatal accident
Appeals Court nixes exception to ‘component parts doctrine’
The manufacturer of a truck and the maker of a component used in an “auxiliary power system” that converted the vehicle into a dump truck had no duty to warn installers and end users of the hazards of implementing such a system, the Appeals Court has found.
The plaintiff brought products liability claims against defendants Mack Trucks and Parker-Hannafin Corp. after her husband, former major league baseball player Mark Fidrych, was fatally asphyxiated. The accident occurred when his clothing got caught in an exposed spinning “U-joint” that was part of the auxiliary power system he had had installed on his truck.
According to the plaintiff, it was foreseeable to Mack that downstream installers would outfit stripped-down Mack trucks like Fidrych’s with auxiliary power systems containing exposed moving parts, creating a foreseeable risk of the type of injury Fidrych suffered.
Similarly, the plaintiff argued, the manufacturer of the auxiliary system’s “power take-off” — or PTO — could have foreseen the use of its PTOs in such systems. Thus, the plaintiff contended, both manufacturers had a duty to issue adequate warnings of the risks imposed by auxiliary systems with unguarded parts.
But the Appeals Court disagreed, finding that the “component parts doctrine,” articulated in the Supreme Judicial Court’s 1986 decision in Mitchell v. Sky Climber, Inc., barred her claim.
“In our view, Mitchell stands for the proposition that, as a general rule, the manufacturer of a nondefective component part has no underlying duty to warn of risks posed by the assembled product that arose out of the addition of other components and the decisions made, and actions taken, by downstream actors,” Judge James R. Milkey wrote for the panel.
The 16-page decision is Pantazis v. Mack Trucks, Inc., et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 11-145-17. The full text of the ruling can be found here.
Plaintiff’s counsel Roger J. Brunelle of Worcester said the decision creates “broad implications” for anyone hurt by a product assembled from component parts but not sold as a unified product.
Without being able to bring a products liability claim against individual part manufacturers that could have foreseen their products being used in a dangerous system, a plaintiff would be left having to prove the assembler owed them a duty of care and was negligent.
“How far downstream that duty would extend, and what the scope of the duty of care would be, are uncharted territory,” Brunelle said, noting that the entity that assembled the auxiliary power system in Pantazis was unknown.
Attorneys for the defendants could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.
But David A. Barry of Boston, who litigates products liability cases, said the “foreseeable use” exception to the component parts doctrine that the plaintiff argued for could create uncertainty.
“The duty issue underlying the component parts doctrine is informed by public policy considerations like whether it is fair or reasonable to impose on a parts manufacturer a duty to warn of dangers that only arise downstream when the part is put into the finished product,” Barry said. “Clearly, the imposition of such a duty … would be limitless. For example, it would require saw-blade manufacturers to provide warnings about the danger of an unguarded blade [that] would exist only after the blade is incorporated into a finished power saw.”
John Egan, a products liability lawyer in Boston, agreed, adding that the whole notion of “foreseeability” in a products liability case is troublesome to begin with since it is so difficult for a lay jury to appreciate, after an accident has actually occurred, that the particular scenario may have been unforeseeable to the manufacturer or seller.
“It is an exercise in mental gymnastics that many jurors are simply incapable of performing, which is why most defendants in product cases put their best foot forward at the summary judgment stage and then buy their peace at the best price available if the motion is denied,” he said.
Boston attorney Jennifer A. Creedon, who co-chairs the Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association’s Products Liability Committee, said it still made sense for the plaintiff to attempt the argument, since the Appeals Court suggested as dicta in a 2011 decision, Morin v. Autozone Northeast, Inc., et al., that a foreseeability exception might, in fact, exist in certain circumstances.
In Morin, the Appeals Court raised the possibility of a truck manufacturer having a duty to warn downstream parties of the health risks of installing asbestos brakes, but ultimately decided the case on other grounds.
By rejecting a foreseeable use exception in Pantazis, Creedon said, the Appeals Court appeared to foreclose such an exception in general, but kept alive the possibility that the exception still might exist for asbestos brakes.
“The fact that our courts would consider a components part doctrine exception for asbestos might make plaintiffs’ attorneys more likely to file asbestos claims in this state and test the doctrine in that context,” Creedon added.
As manufacturers of mere components that were not themselves defective, the defendants had no duty to warn either assemblers or end users of the risks presented by such systems, Judge James R. Milkey said.
Known during his playing days with the Detroit Tigers as “The Bird,” Fidrych won the 1976 American League Rookie of the Year award for his pitching dominance.
When injuries derailed Fidrych’s career, he bought a farm in his native Northborough and started a gravel-hauling business.
In 1987, Fidrych bought a Mack truck classified as an “incomplete vehicle” that had only chassis, cab and engine but could be turned into a dump truck, flatbed truck or even a fire truck by adding the necessary equipment.
Fidrych wanted to use his vehicle as a dump truck and had it outfitted with a dump body and auxiliary power system for tilting the body. It is unknown who did the work.
The auxiliary power system got its power from the truck’s transmission, which Mack designed to connect to a PTO. In Fidrych’s case, the PTO was hooked up to an auxiliary drive shaft that linked to a spinning U-joint, which, in turn, connected to a hydraulic pump that raised and lowered the dump body.
Though guards could have been installed to shield moving parts like the U-joint, none were installed on the system in Fidrych’s truck. Mack apparently provided general warnings about the use of PTOs, and Dana Corp., which made the PTO, provided general warnings about the dangers posed by exposed moving equipment attached to the PTO.
Fidrych was killed in 2009 when his clothing became entangled in the system’s spinning, exposed U-joint. His widow, plaintiff Ann Pantazis, subsequently brought products liability claims in Superior Court against Mack Trucks and Parker-Hannafin, which had purchased Dana’s assets. It is unclear who manufactured the U-joint.
According to the plaintiff, because the truck transmission was designed to accept a PTO, which, in turn, could be operated to power an auxiliary drive shaft, and because unguarded auxiliary drive shafts posed a foreseeable risk of danger, both manufacturers had an obligation to more adequately warn installers and end users about such dangers.
However, both claims were dismissed on summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.
The Appeals Court affirmed the rulings under the component parts doctrine.
“We agree with the motion judges that this case is controlled by Mitchell,” Milkey wrote. “[W]hether an auxiliary power system presented the risks at issue here depended on how that system was designed and built. Put differently, the potential dangers here, as in Mitchell, arose from the assembly of the component parts into the finished auxiliary power system.”
As manufacturers of mere components that were not themselves defective, the defendants had no duty to warn either assemblers or end users of the risks presented by such systems, the judge continued.
Still, Milkey said, “none of this is to say that appellate courts should never recognize exceptions to the component parts doctrine.”
In fact, he said, the Appeals Court recognized the possibility of such an exception in Morin.
However, the panel concluded that, “[b]ased on the summary judgment record and the arguments raised, the plaintiff has not demonstrated good cause to create an exception here.”
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