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Highway Equipment Company Appeal

On Behalf of | Sep 7, 2022 | Firm News

The Plaintiff in this products liability case suffered a near amputation of his right hand while performing maintenance on a sand spreading machine manufactured by the Defendant, Highway Equipment Company (“HECO”).

The Plaintiff claimed that his sleeve became entangled in the unguarded chain and sprockets of the machine’s conveyor belt, which caused his hand to be pulled into the machine and nearly amputated. Plaintiff alleged defective design and a lost consortium claim.

Defendant argued the machine was properly designed but was modified to defeat the safety design of “guarding by location” in which the spreader was designed to be mounted within 4 inches of the truck’s cab to prevent access near the sprockets and chains which did not have a physical guard. (Please see the warning on the HECO Spreader at the bottom of this page).

However, the properly mounted machine was later improperly re­mounted on a different truck with almost two feet of space, defeating the guarding by location design and allowing the Plaintiff access to this unguarded and dangerous area, where he was injured. Based on blood alcohol testing performed at the hospital within hours of the accident, the Plaintiff was also intoxicated at the time of his injury.

Following a jury verdict for the Defendant on all counts, the Plaintiff appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. In his Appellate Brief, and at oral argument held in May, 2014, the Plaintiff argued that the trial court judge’s decision to instruct the jury on the Plaintiff’s unreasonable use of the machine was not supported by the evidence at trial and the instruction as given to the jury was improper in that it failed to instruct on the Plaintiff’s subjective knowledge of the magnitude of the risk that he appreciated on the day of the accident and because the instruction improperly equated unreasonable use to contributory negligence.

These mistakes by the trial court judge, Rose argued, amounted to reversible error.

In September, 2014, the Appeals Court released its ruling, agreeing with each of HECO’s arguments made in HECO’s Appellate Brief and during arguments and affirming the verdict for HECO at trial in 2009.

In disagreeing with each of the Plaintiff’s arguments, the Appeals Court held the evidence put forth by the Defendant at trial was (1) sufficient to support the judge’s submission of the unreasonable use defense to the jury and that (2) the instructions, as given, were proper.

At oral arguments, the Plaintiff asserted that HECO was required to prove his subjective knowledge of the danger posed by the spreader through a direct admission by the Plaintiff. However, the Appeals Court held that this was not the correct standard and that the Plaintiff’s testimony as to his familiarity with the spreader and other heavy machinery, his inconsistent statements about the danger he perceived from the spreader, his disregard of instructions on how and where to properly oil the spreader’s chains and sprockets, in addition to the Plaintiff’s consumption of alcohol on the day of the accident collectively gave the trial court judge sufficient grounds to instruct the jury on the unreasonable use defense.

The Plaintiff further argued that the trial court judge’s use of the phrase “this is the implied warranty version in effect of the contributory negligence defense described earlier” to transition from his instruction on the implied warranty claim to his instruction on affirmative defense of unreasonable constituted reversible error.

The Appeals Court again disagreed and held that while the judge confused contributory negligence with comparative negligence (there is no contributory negligence in Massachusetts), this language did not improperly link the absolute defense of warranty liability with the apportionment of liability principles of negligence (comparative negligence) as the Plaintiff had asserted.

Jury verdict for the Defendant affirmed on appeal to the Massachusetts Appeals Court.