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The Altered Product

brokenness-1-656297-mIn 2004, Jessica Bowers, a 16 year old girl from upstate New York, elected to help her father with some yard work at their family home.  Jessica was entrusted with assisting with a post-hole digger in order to erect a fence on the premises.  A post-hole digger is a tool used to dig narrow holes to install posts, such as for fences and signs.  While assisting her stepfather, Jessica’s jacket got caught on one of the gears of the machine which resulted in her arm being severed from below the elbow.  Jessica, and her mother, brought a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the equipment claiming negligence and defective design.  After a trial on the matter, Jessica won an $8.8 million jury verdict.  On appeal, the manufacturer sought to overturn the verdict, claiming there could be no liability based on an interesting twist.

The manufacturer argued that it could not be held liable for a products liability claim predicated on a defective design because it did not produce the machine in the condition it was in at the time of Jessica’s injury.  It should be noted that Jessica’s family did not own the piece of machinery.  When Jessica’s stepfather had borrowed the machinery from family friend (and grape farmer), he failed to mention that he removed a safety shield that covered the machine’s gearbox.  Had this shield been present, as it had been in the original design by the manufacturer, Jessica’s jacket would not have caught on the exposed bolt that pulled her into the tractor.  The New York State Court of Appeals rejected this argument.

The Court held that there was evidence presented that the bolt protruding from the digger was unsafe and that the safety shield was flimsy.  As this defective condition existed prior to the substantial modification made by the farmer, a products liability claim could run to the manufacturer.  As such- the jury verdict was upheld.

In Massachusetts, there are often times where a product leaves the hands and control of a manufacture, only to be altered in some fashion by a subsequent consumer.  If a person is injured by the now altered product and brings suit against the manufacturer, the manufacturer will typically argue that liability should not attach because the alteration or modification that caused the accident was due to someone else’s action.  The issue becomes whether a substantial modification is an intervening cause for purposes of liability.  This is a question of fact that is normally for the jury to decide.  The manufacturer may be liable, even when an alteration exists, if the alteration to the product was reasonably foreseeable.

To read more about the case from New York, please read Hoover v. New Holland North America Inc, New York State Court of Appeals.  If you believe you have a products liability case, our office can help you pursue your claim. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page. For more information you can also visit the firm website.

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