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Maryland District Court Denies Manufacturer’s Motion for Summary Judgment in Products Liability Case Involving Allegedly Defective Animal Rack
Florence Parker v. Allentown, Inc.
In Florence Parker v. Allentown, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of Maryland held that summary judgment was not appropriate in a products liability case involving an animal cage rack manufactured by Defendant, Allentown, Inc.
On or around September 22, 2009, Plaintiff, Florence Parker, was performing routine cage checks of the laboratory animals at The John Hopkins’ Bayview campus. Allentown, Incorporated is a company that manufactures and sells animal cage racks, which hold rows of animal cages that can be pulled out. Allentown sold the animal cage rack at issue in this litigation to Hopkins in September, 2001. On the date of the incident, Parker was unable to locate a stepladder at the Hopkins facility, so she checked the top row of cages on each rack, which were above her eyelevel, by pulling out the cages from the rack, taking them down to see their contents, and putting the cages back. When checking the second row from the top on the rack at issue, Parker stood on her tiptoes and held onto the top of the rack with both hands. As she was checking that second row of cages, the cage rack tipped over, falling on top of Parker and breaking her left leg in five places. She was trapped under the rack until a coworker discovered her nearly forty-five minutes later, and she was subsequently transported to the hospital.
Parker filed a five (5)-count Complaint against Allentown on March 2, 2011. First, Parker alleged negligence, claiming that Allentown was “negligent in designing a rack that required the user to pull drawers out, which would foreseeably shift the weight and balance of the rack, without including in the design a device or element that would prevent the entire rack from falling over.” Second, Parker alleged failure to warn, arguing that Defendant “failed to warn [Hopkins] and/or [Plaintiff] of the danger that the rack would tip over, that it was unsafe, that it needed to be secured to the floor or wall to be safe, and of other dangers.” Third, Parker alleged that Defendant breached the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular use. Fourth, Parker alleged design defect, claiming that the product’s design was defective because “it was not designed to be secured to the floor or a wall to keep it from tipping over while in use,” even though its design made it unstable. Finally, Parker alleged strict liability, arguing that, as designed, the rack was “an abnormally dangerous product,” that presented to its users “an unreasonably dangerous risk of harm.” In light of these claims, each of which Parker maintained was a direct and proximate cause of the injuries she sustained, Parker requested five (5) million dollars in compensatory damages.
With respect to the breach of contract and breach of warranty claims, the Court noted that Maryland Code Annotated, Commercial Law, Section 2-725 establishes a four-year statute of limitations. Because Parker filed her claims more than nine (9) years after Allentown delivered the rack to Hopkins, the Court granted Allentown’s motion for summary judgment on this issue. The Court focused on Parker’s negligence claim, noting that the negligence count focuses on the conduct of the defendant, while the strict products liability theory of products liability focuses “primarily on the product (and whether or not it can be deemed defective).” Paul Mark Sandler & James K. Archibald, Pleading Causes of Action in Maryland 255, 265 (4th ed. 2008) (emphasis in original). In Maryland, the existence of a defect may be established through: (1) “direct proof based on the nature of the accident and the product involved”; (2) “opinion testimony of an expert witness”; or (3) “inference of a defect based on circumstantial evidence.” Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co. v. Tecumseh Prods. Co., 767 F. Supp. 2d 549, 557 (D. Md. 2011) (citing Assurance Co. of Am. v. York Int’l, Inc., 305 Fed. App’x 916, 921 (4th Cir. 2008)). In the instant case, Parker proffered expert testimony from a mechanical engineer with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Pennsylvania State University and “more than thirty years of experience in industrial equipment safety, facilities engineering and maintenance, material handling and storage, and regulatory compliance.” The Court determined that this was admissible evidence with a sufficient factual basis to establish a triable issue with respect to the existence of a defect. Additionally, Parker produced a Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) investigation and citation to Hopkins that the Court found admissible as proof that the cage racks might have been defective. The Court also acknowledged that it was undisputed that the design of the racks at issue was properly attributed to Allentown. If the jury finds that the design is defective, the Court stated, then a reasonable jury could attribute that defect to Allentown.
With respect to causation, Parker alleged that there was a causal relationship between her injury and the rack’s defective design, because the defect made the rack “easy to tip over, by inadvertent but foreseeable usage, upon an application of less than 50 [pounds] of force.” Again, the Court determined that whether a causal relationship existed between the rack’s instability and Parker’s injury was a genuine dispute issue of material fact that should be determined by a jury, and a reasonable jury could find for Parker. Although Allentown contested that the harm suffered by Parker was not foreseeable, the Court stated that the proper question was whether Parker’s use of the rack was foreseeable; that is, whether Allentown should have anticipated that someone inspecting the upper racks of cages would hold on to the top of the rack to view the upper cages while on tiptoes or step on the bottom of the rack to view the upper cages. Accordingly, a jury could conclude that the rack was not reasonably safe for all foreseeable uses.
In sum, the Court held that several elements of Parker’s claims were undisputed: namely, the existence of Allentown’s duty was established as a matter of law; Parker’s injury was undisputed; and it was undisputed that, if the design of the rack was defective, that defect was attributable to Allentown. Nonetheless, there were disputes of material fact concerning whether the rack was in fact defective; causation; and whether Parker’s use of the rack was foreseeable. Consequently, the Court held that summary judgment was not appropriate as Parker was able to generate a genuine dispute of material fact as to her negligence and strict liability claims.
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