In 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. Continue reading →