A state appellate court recently addressed the applicability of the consumer expectations test in a California product liability claim against a forklift manufacturer. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff suffered serious injuries when a forklift he was operating tipped over. The forklift at issue is known as a “telehandler,” which is designed to work on rough terrain and travel off paved surfaces. These devices have a telescopic boom that can extend to carry loads to high elevations.
The telehandler had a steel cage around the operator that worked as a rollover protective system. The machine also had a two-point seat belt and a leveling system that allowed the operator to flatten a slope about 10 degrees. However, the safety manual warned that the telehandler should not be used on any slope over 10 degrees. Additionally, the manual stated that operators should not travel with the boom elevated because doing so could cause a rollover. The telehandler was sold with a door; however, in this case, the door was removed before the incident.
On the day of the incident, the plaintiff was asked to move several industrial ovens at a worksite. After performing an inspection of the machine, he got into the telehandler and traveled to the area with the ovens. He did this without wearing a seat belt and with the boom elevated. When he reached the area, and began to back up, the telehandler fell on its side, and the plaintiff fell out of the forklift.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit, arguing that the telehandler was defective because it should have had a non-removable door, a seat belt with additional attachments, and interlocks that would prevent the operation of the machine without a door or belt. The plaintiff presented an engineering expert that testified that wearing a seat belt would not have prevented the plaintiff’s injuries; however, a door would have prevented the plaintiff from falling out during a tip over. Additionally, the expert testified that the plaintiff did not jump out of the cab but instead rolled out of his seat. The defendants presented an expert who stated that the plaintiff could not have fallen out of the machine, and that he must have jumped out.
The plaintiff argued that the court should have instructed the jury on the “consumer expectations test.” This instruction advises the jury that a product’s design is defective if it fails to perform safely as an “ordinary consumer would expect” when used in a foreseeable manner. This test takes into account how the plaintiff used the product, the circumstances surrounding the injury, and the object’s objective safety features. Here, the court found that the plaintiff failed to present evidence about a reasonable telehandler’s safety expectations under similar circumstances. Instead, the plaintiff’s expert bore on a risk-benefit analysis. However, this case was not about the objective safety features of the telehandler. Instead, it was a case about the feasibility, practicality, and risk of the telehandler. Ultimately, the court found that the consumer expectations test was inappropriate.
This case illustrates the complexities of California product liability law, and the importance of working with an experienced personal injury attorney who is knowledgeable in these specific cases.
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