Defendant The Raymond Co. saw its summary judgment victory overturned by California’s 4th District Court of Appeal in a surprising turn of events in its ongoing product liability case in San Diego Superior Court. In its July 2017 decision, the 4th District held that The Raymond Co. failed to meet its burden to show that the risk-benefit test applied to dismiss the claims made by plaintiffs Sandra and Kawika Demara.
The Demaras filed their lawsuit initially when Mr. Demara allegedly sustained injuries in 2011 as a result of alleged design defects in one of Raymond’s forklifts being operated at a warehouse in Carlsbad, California. According to their complaint, the Demaras alleged that a Raymond 7400 series forklift was backing up, changing direction, and turning, when the drive wheel ran over Mr. Demara’s foot and crushed it. The Demaras alleged in their complaint that Mr. Demara did not see the forklift or its warning light. As a result, he had to have multiple surgeries on his foot and remains permanently disabled with pain. In a single cause of action for products liability, the Demaras alleged strict liability on claims for defects in the design, manufacture, and warnings, and one claim for general negligence.
The San Diego Superior Court trial judge had previously granted Raymond’s summary judgment by deciding that the Damaras failed to raise a triable issue of material fact as to the issue of causation. The trial court also rejected the argument that the consumer expectation test ought to be applied as a matter of law and that even assuming the Demaras had raised a triable issue, Raymond had sufficiently applied the necessary elements of the risk-benefit test.
Rejecting the lower court’s ruling, 4th District Presiding Justice Judith McConnell concluded that the trial court’s conclusions were incorrect because the Demaras’ causation evidence was ample enough to defeat Raymond’s summary judgment motion. McConnell ruled that “in applying the risk-benefit test, [Raymond] failed to present sufficient evidence to shift the burden to plaintiffs to show a triable issue of material fact.”
The 4th District cited to the decision in Campbell v. GM Corp., (1982) 32 Cal.3d 112 for the general rule that under the consumer expectation test and the risk-benefit test, to prove a design defect claim, the plaintiff must show that the product at issue failed to perform safely and that this failure played a substantial role in causing the harm. Raymond’s summary judgment motion hinged on the argument that the Demaras failed to show that the design of the forklift played a substantial role in causing Mr. Demara’s injury. According to Justice McConnell, however, “[Raymond] presented neither evidence nor inferences from evidence to suggest that the design was not a substantial factor in bringing Demara’s injury.”
Justice McConnell went on further to state “because the Defendants’ statement that the occurrence of the accident was not evidence of a defect that caused Plaintiff’s injuries is not a prima facie showing that Plaintiffs cannot prove causation, the burden of establishing a triable issue of material fact never shifted to Plaintiffs, and the trial court should not have granted Defendants’ motion on the basis that Plaintiffs did not meet their burden of establishing a triable issue of material fact as to causation.”
In reaching its decision to overturn Raymond’s summary judgment victory, the 4th District Appeals Court highlighted plaintiffs’ evidence that the area on the outside of the drive wheel of the forklift is open with guard rails, gates, skirts, or bumps allowing Mr. Demara’s foot able to go underneath the forklift and be crushed by the exposed wheel. The Demaras also presented evidence that a warning light on the forklift was not, at certain angles, visible to pedestrians.
By reversing the summary judgment, the Demara’s case has been remanded back to San Diego Superior Court with instructions for an order to be entered denying Raymond’s motion for summary judgment, denying its motion for summary adjudication of the Demara’s claims for design defect and for negligence, and an order granting the Demara’s motion for summary adjudication of Raymond’s claim for defective manufacturing and for failure to warn.