Florida Court Explains Defective Design and The Duty to Warn in Wood Chipper Accident Case - Hernandez v. Altec Environmental
A product manufacturer is generally required to ensure that the items it makes for sale are reasonably safe, and that potential buyers are warned of any risks or dangers associated with using the product in the way it was intended. Just how safe and what types of risks must be addressed are questions that often end up before Florida courts. In Hernandez v. Altec Environmental, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida takes up these issues in relation to a commercial wood chipper.
Guadalupe Hernandez was injured in an accident while using a wood chipper. Manufactured by Altec Environmental, the machine came equipped with a safety guard, which had been removed prior to the accident. Hernandez and his wife sued the company for strict liability and negligence, alleging that the chipper was defectively designed and that Altec failed to provide users proper warning and instructions.
Specifically, Hernandez argued that the chipper was designed in a way that required users to regularly remove the bolted-in safety guard in order to clear debris jams. As a result, Altec should have expected that users would operate the machine without the guard in place and took no steps to prevent injury related to use of the unguarded machine.
The District Court rejected this argument. "Plaintiffs' basic premise that the safety guard will be removed and not replaced because it is time consuming to remove and replace the bolts regularly is unsupported because there is no evidence that the chipper jammed in the field on a sufficiently frequent basis." Rather, the person who field tested the machine for Hernandez's employer before purchase said that the chipper jammed a number of times, but that he removed the safety guard only "a few times" between the summer of 2008 and November 2009.
The court also found that the danger posed to users by operating the machine with the safety guard removed was obvious. "By necessity, wood chippers are dangerous and the danger inherent in putting one's hand under a running wood chipper that has its safety guard removed is sufficiently patent and obvious that no additional warning is legally required," the court explained, citing the January ruling by Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal in List Industries v. Dalien. As such, Altec had no duty to warn users of any risk posed by using the chipper without the safety guard in place, according to the court.