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Kelter v. Wasp, Inc.

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

September 16, 2014

WASP, INC., a Minnesota Corporation, a/k/a WATKINS AIRCRAFT SUPPORT PRODUCTS, et al., Defendants.


THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon the Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Conken Systems, Inc. ("Conken"). (Docket No. 148). Plaintiff Christopher S. Kelter has responded, (Docket No. 153), and Conken has replied, (Docket No. 163). Fully briefed, this matter is ripe for adjudication.[1] The Court having reviewed the parties' submissions and being otherwise sufficiently advised, for the reasons that follow, Conken's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

Factual Background

Plaintiff Christopher S. Kelter worked as a package handler at the Paducah, Kentucky, FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. ("FedEx") facility. On April 7, 2011, Kelter worked the "inbound" shift, requiring him to unload packages from tractor trailers and distribute them onto delivery trucks using conveyor belts. At the end of each such shift, a handler checks the machinery to ensure that no packages became stuck along the conveyor belts. (Docket No. 111-1 at 4.) Kelter performed this task on the date at issue; however, the system was not shut down at the time, leaving the conveyor belts operational. Kelter attempted to clear an obstructed package, but tripped and fell while walking across the moving conveyor belt. His arm was pinned between two rollers located near the P-12 hitch area.[2] The resultant traumatic injury ultimately led to the amputation of Kelter's lower right arm.

After Kelter's accident, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet Occupational Safety and Health Program cited FedEx for violating two counts of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. (Docket No. 111-3 at 1.) The first count was eventually dismissed, leaving only a citation for FedEx employees' failure to abide by proper lockout/tagout procedures.[3] (Docket No. 111-4.)

Conken manufactured the machinery at issue, known as a "material handling sortation system." As Conken explains, "This system is a series of conveyors, chutes, and tables used for sorting inbound and outbound packages for delivery to FedEx Ground customers in Paducah and beyond." (Docket No. 111-1 at 1.) Conken was awarded the FedEx contract through a bidding process by which FedEx provided the system's specifications to interested vendors, who then submitted bids for the job. Conken subcontracted with Designed Conveyor Systems, Inc. ("DCS") to create AutoCAD drawings reflecting the FedEx specifications and the Paducah facility's design. Conken forwarded the completed AutoCAD drawings to FedEx, which determined that the proposal satisfied the company's specifications. (Docket No. 111-1 at 2.) Upon FedEx's approval, Conken retained other subcontractors to install the system, design its controls, and provide component parts. (Docket No. 111-1 at 2.)

In this lawsuit, Kelter alleges that various parties, including Conken, were negligent in designing, manufacturing, and installing the FedEx conveyor system. Specifically, he contends that the system was not reasonably safe, as it lacked a safety guard in the P-12 hitch area. Such a safety guard, Kelter reasons, would have averted an amputation or crushing hazard. (Docket No. 24 at 4.) He further contends that Conken and other defendants failed to adequately warn him of the risks and dangers associated with the conveyor belt. Finally, he asserts negligence per se and seeks punitive damages. (Docket No. 24 at 5-6.)

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).


The Court will first consider the parties' arguments related to Kelter's defective design claim. The Court will then discuss the failure to warn claim and will conclude by analyzing the negligence per se allegation.[4]

I. Defective design

Kelter first alleges that Conken was "negligent in the design and manufacture and installation of the Material Handling Sortation System, since [its] product failed to be reasonably safe and specifically have a safety guard." (Docket No. 24 at 4.) Conken responds that because it simply produced the product according to FedEx's specifications, it cannot be liable for a design defect. (Docket No. 111-1 at 10-11.) There can be little doubt that Conken adhered to these specifications and did not participate in the system's design. Indeed, the parties' contract specifically directs that "no changes in engineering concept or final design lay-outs, irrespective of impact on price, shall be made unless [FedEx] has first been notified in writing and agrees in writing to such change." (Docket No. 111-2 at 21.) Accordingly, the Court will consider whether adherence to the buyer's specifications absolves Conken of liability.

In McCabe Powers Body Co. v. Sharp, 594 S.W.2d 592 (Ky. 1980), the Kentucky Supreme Court addressed a manufacturer's liability for designing a product in accord with the buyer's specifications. The court opined:

[O]rdinarily where a product is manufactured according to plans and specifications furnished by the buyer and the alleged defect is open and obvious, the manufacturer is protected from ...

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