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Smith v. Parker-Hannifin Corporation

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

April 14, 2014

MARIA SMITH, as Administratrix of the Estate of JAMES SMITH, Deceased, Individually, and as Next Friend of PBS, VMS, and ARS, unmarried infants Plaintiff,
v.
PARKER-HANNIFIN CORPORATION, Defendant. and ACE AMERICAN INSURANCE CO. Intervenor Plaintiff,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Parker-Hannifin Corporation ("Parker"), (Docket No. 111). Plaintiff Maria Smith filed a response, (Docket No. 114), and Parker filed a reply, (Docket No. 117). This matter is now ripe for review.

Factual Background

This products liability case arises from an accident that occurred on September 12, 2011 at the Westlake Monomers Plant in Calvert City, Kentucky. On that date, Plaintiff's decedent, James Smith ("Smith"), was using an ultra-high pressure hose for "hydroblasting" in the course of his employment by PSC Industrial Outsourcing, LP ("PSC"). Otherwise known as "shotgunning" or "water blasting, " this process involves directing high-pressure water from a hose and through a "shotgun, " or lance, in order to clean heavy machinery. The parties and witnesses have referred to the hose as a "20, 000 psi" hose. ( See Docket No. 114 at 2.) When the hose suddenly ruptured, a powerful stream of water escaped, penetrating Smith's abdomen and ultimately causing his death.

Plaintiff claims that the hose was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to users, thereby causing Smith's accident and injuries. Specifically, she alleges that Parker defectively designed the hose by failing to include a built-in safety shroud. Plaintiff also contends that Parker failed to warn users of the hose's known and foreseeable hazards. (Docket No. 1-1 at 7.) She seeks damages for Smith's medical expenses and pain and suffering, punitive damages, loss of earning, and loss of consortium. (Docket No. 1-1 at 8.)

Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

"[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; he must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for him. See id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). Mere speculation will not suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment: "[T]he mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate." Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., 681 F.3d 312 (6th Cir. 2012).

Finally, while the substantive law of Kentucky is applicable to this case pursuant to Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), a federal court sitting in diversity applies the standards of Federal Rule of Procedure 56, not Kentucky's summary judgment standard as articulated in Steelvest, Inc. v. Scansteel Serv. Ctr., Inc., 807 S.W.2d 476 (Ky. 1991). Gafford v. Gen. Elec. Co., 997 F.2d 150, 165 (6th Cir. 1993), abrogated on other grounds by Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 130 S.Ct. 1181 (2010).

Analysis

Plaintiff raises her claims under the strict liability doctrines articulated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts and later adopted by Kentucky courts.

In 1966, our Supreme Court subscribed to the principle of strict liability as stated in section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. See Dealers Transp. Co. v. Battery Distrib. Co., 402 S.W.2d 441, 446-47 (Ky. 1965). The strict liability principle of section 402A describes a product as defective for purposes of the application of strict liability as one "in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965).

Worldwide Equip., Inc. v. Mullins, 11 S.W.3d 50, 55 (Ky. App. 1999). Strict liability "permit[s] injured parties a method of reaching back to the manufacturer or distributor of commercial products, following some form of failure on the product's part." Id. A products liability plaintiff may recover under a number of theories, including defective design, defective manufacture, and failure to warn; each theory is independent of the others. Clark v. Hauck Mfg. Co., 910 S.W.2d 247, 250 (Ky. 1995). Here, Plaintiff's claims are grounded upon defective design and failure to warn.

I. Superseding causes

Parker first alleges that two superseding causes bar its liability under any legal theory: first, that Smith was aware of the danger but nonetheless ignored it, and second, that PSC failed to properly maintain and replace the hose. Parker argues that Smith's injury was caused by his ignoring warnings and by PSC's keeping the aged hose in service, relieving Parker of liability if these actions rise to the level of a superseding cause. NKC Hosps., Inc. v. Anthony, 849 S.W.2d 564 (Ky. App. 1993); Deutsch v. Shein, 597 S.W.2d 141, 144 (Ky. 1980).

Kentucky courts have adopted the principles articulated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 440-53for determining when an intervening act becomes a superseding cause. See House v. Kellerman, 519 S.W.2d 380 (Ky. 1974). A superseding cause breaks the chain of causation, cutting off the liability of a defendant whose negligence did not proximately cause the plaintiff's injury. Watters v. TSR, Inc., 904 F.2d 378, 383 (6th Cir. 1990). If an intervening act is not a "normal response" to the original tortious act, it is an "extraordinary" act that cuts off a defendant's causation. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 444. If the act ultimately consists of facts "of such extraordinary rather than normal' or highly extraordinary' nature, unforeseeable in character, [it will] relieve the original wrongdoer of liability to the ultimate victim.'" Montgomery Elevator Co. v. McCullough, 676 S.W.2d at 776, 780 (Ky. 1984).

If a defendant asserts that another's act was a superseding cause of the plaintiff's injuries, and "there is no issue as to whether the act or event actually occurred, whether it constituted an independent cause superseding and eliminating the alleged negligence of the defendant as a legal cause should be determined by the court." House, 519 S.W.2d at 383. Here, there is no dispute as the whether the events at issue actually happened; therefore, the issues raised by this motion constitute matters of law. The Court must therefore determine whether Smith's using the hose without a shroud and PSC's keeping the hose in service constitute superseding causes, relieving Parker of liability.

In NKC Hosp., Inc. v. Anthony , the Kentucky Court of Appeals reviewed existing case law and articulated that a superseding cause ...


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