By US correspondent Roger Renstrom
In a wrongful death lawsuit, a US District Court jury in Portland found a 1989-model standup forklift's design was safe but imposed liability on manufacturer Crown Equipment Corp.
The jury found Crown had insufficiently informed users about a safety improvement available for older forklifts. The jury returned the verdict late on August 28 after deliberating for 10 hours. The trial started on August 15.
Forklift operator Thomas Brown was asphyxiated on August 1, 2003, because of an equipment flaw, according to plaintiff attorney Terrence Garmey, representing Claire Brown, the dead man's widow.
The jury determined there was no product defect and no design negligence but a post-sale failure to warn, said John Maxa, vice president and general counsel with Crown, in New Bremen, Ohio, USA.
Brown was backing the forklift while moving chemicals in a storage area at Prime Tanning Co Inc, in Berwick, Maine, USA. Brown's chest was compressed between a shelving unit and the forklift's dashboard, Garmey said. A Crown-made guard was not installed on the forklift although it was available for the model.
The jury awarded USD4.2 million in damages but reduced the amount by USD200,000 for what it perceived as Brown's negligence, Garmey said.
Judge David Cohen reduced the total award under Maine law to USD1.6 million, consisting of USD800,000 in economic damages, USD400,000 for pain and suffering and USD400,000 for loss of consortium.
The litigants dispute whether the USD200,000 should be deducted from the jury's USD4.2 million award or the judge's USD1.6 million award.
The verdict is "one of a string of defeats Crown has experienced regarding older models", Garmey told Forkliftaction.com News
. "The machine has acted as a serial killer. At the time of [Brown's] accident, there had been 227 incidents, half of them serious and 11 fatal."
The jury found Crown had a duty to advise people, Garmey said.
Crown added the safety guard to its forklifts in the 1990s and told customers it was available as a retrofit kit for previously manufactured forklifts.
"We feel the issue on which they found against Crown was improperly [put] before the jury and contradicted by the evidence," Maxa said. The verdict, which Crown intended to appeal, "is a very inconsistent result [and] permitted Crown's commitment to product safety to be used against it".
The verdict, "if allowed to stand, is a bad message for product safety", Maxa said. "The court's ruling permitted a jury to impose liability on a company whose product it found to be safe."
During the trial, attorney James Campbell, representing Crown, said Brown was responsible for the incident and Crown had created safety-training material that Prime Tanning did not use. Prime Tanning acquired the forklift third hand and therefore did not get the letter from Crown, but Prime Tanning did possess a Crown operator's manual that warned of the possibility of under-rack horizontal intrusion.
"Crown, from its beginnings, has been committed to designing the safest forklifts possible [and] has won numerous awards for its designs," Maxa said. "This is the reason the jury found this truck to be safe. This accident, of course, was very tragic, but our system of justice does not permit sympathy and emotion to prevail over the law and the facts."