Don’t Blame the Cherry-|Picker for Church Death

     (CN) – Design defect did not cause the death of an electrician who fell 40 feet when the lift he was using in a cathedral tipped over, the Texas Supreme Court ruled.
     The Cathedral in the Pines Church in Beaumont had hired Gulf Coast Electric to run fiber-optic cable in its ceilings, and afforded the company’s workers use of its aerial lift.
     Genie Industries manufactured the lift in question, an aerial work platform-40’SuperSeries, and the two Gulf Coast workers performing the Cathedral job were using the device as instructed.
     The work was slow-going, however, because, each time they needed to reach a different area, they first had to lower the platform, let the worker step off, reposition the lift, and then let the worker step back on.
     A church employee suggested things would move quicker if they just moved the elevated platform without lowering it to let out the electrician.
     Despite the reservations of the electrician on the ground, the church worker said he and other church employees did it “all the time.”
     “Actually, what they had done all the time is move the lift with the worker still on the platform, but not with the platform fully raised,” according to the Texas Supreme Court’s May 8 decision in the case.
     The electrician on the ground moved the lift with co-worker Walter Matak still on it, 40 feet up in the air, but the lift toppled over and Matak crashed to the ground. He died of massive head injuries.
     A wrongful-death trial in Beaumont ended with a jury finding that a design defect caused the accident. The apportioned 55 percent of the liability to Genie, 20 percent to the church, 20 percent to Gulf Coast and 5 percent to the electrician who died.
     An appeals court affirmed, but the Texas Supreme Court reversed 6-3 after noting that Matak’s death happened just as warnings on the machine predicted.
     “So obvious was the danger that although over 100,000 lifts of the same general model have been sold all over the world, the jury was provided with evidence of only three similar accidents involving similar AWP lifts over the past decade – none of which involved the intentional destabilization of a fully extended 40-foot lift,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the majority.
     Hecht emphasized that these three reported accidents stand out among “the millions of times Genie’s AWP-series lifts have been used.”
     “But the record does not reflect a single misuse as egregious as that in this case,” Hecht added.
     Despite evidence that “users of the lift will not read or follow the user manual or the warning signs on the machine,” Hecht said “the chance that anyone would attempt to do so with the platform fully elevated is only one in millions.”
     “The risk of misuse in this case cannot in any sense be said to be likely,” the decision states.
     Precedent on “products liability ‘does not guarantee that a product will be risk free,’ only that it will not be unreasonably dangerous,” Hecht added, “There is no evidence in the record before us that the AWP-40S is unreasonably dangerous.
     The 23-page dissent says otherwise.
     “This record contains at least some evidence that it was both foreseeable and likely that untrained non-professionals would use the Genie lift, that they would destabilize it while the platform was raised and occupied despite the warnings and the allegedly obvious dangers, and that doing so would result in serious injuries and death, no matter how high the platform is elevated,” Justice Jeffrey Boyd wrote, joined by two others.

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