Component Part Manufacturer May Have Duty to Offer or Install Necessary Safety Features

The Indiana Supreme Court recently held in Brewer v. PACCAR, Inc. that a component part manufacturer (PACCAR) may have a duty to offer or install necessary safety features under Indiana’s Product Liability Act (IPLA). Because issues of fact existed as to whether the safety features were offered and necessary to make the final product safe, the Court reversed the trial court’s finding that PACCAR owed no duty, as a matter of law, to install safety features that the injury party alleged were necessary.

The IPLA subjects a manufacturer of “a product or a component part of a product,” I.C. § 34-6-2-77, to liability for physical harm caused by a manufacturer placing “into the stream of commerce any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to any user or consumer,” I.C. § 34-20-2-1. A product is defective under the IPLA if it is defectively designed, if it has a manufacturing flaw, or if it lacks adequate warnings about dangers associated with its use.

Rickey Brewer was a construction foreman killed when a semi driver backed up a semi with an integrated PACCAR glider kit, did not see Rickey, and pinned him against a trailer, killing him.  His widow and his estate asserted an IPLA claim against PACCAR. The claim asserted PACCAR’s glider kit was defectively designed because it lacked certain safety features to reduce the danger inherent in its forty-foot blind spot. (If you drive a vehicle with a rear camera and sensors, you can probably attest to the peace of mind and safety such devices add to our everyday life). Here, because a design-defect claim is based in negligence, Brewer would need to be able to prove at trial that (1) PACCAR owed a duty to Rickey; (2) PACCAR breached that duty; and (3) the breach proximately caused an injury to Rickey. The only element at issue in the case was duty—whether PACCAR lacked a duty, as a matter of law, to install certain safety features.

The Court noted the IPLA does not differentiate between a final manufacturer and a component-part manufacturer. Both are “manufacturers” for purposes of the IPLA, so both have a duty “to design … products which are reasonably fit and safe for the purpose for which they are intended,”

Prior Indiana product liability case law established that a component-part manufacturer has no duty under the IPLA to include safety features when three conditions are met: (1) the end product has multiple anticipated configurations, (2) the end manufacturer determines which configuration the product takes, and (3) the different anticipated configurations prevent the component-part manufacturer from reasonably knowing whether and how safety features should be included with the part.

The Court in Brewer found the designated evidence indisputably demonstrated that PACCAR’s sleeper-cab glider kit has one reasonably foreseeable use—to be combined with an engine, transmission, and exhaust system into an over-the-road semi. There was also no reasonable dispute that an over-the-road semi with a sleeper cab was, at some point, going to be used in reverse, and that the glider kit—both as supplied and as integrated—had a forty-foot blind spot. So, unlike the prior cases finding no duty, in Brewer the multiple, anticipated end configurations did not leave the component-part manufacturer without a duty, as a matter of law, to include safety features necessary to adequately abate inherent dangers.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings, holding that whether PACCAR owed the decedent a duty to include the features was a question for the trier of fact. Brewer demonstrates the potentially complex factual and legal issues that may arise out of a workplace injury or death.  Such workplace or construction site injuries and deaths may give rise to a viable product liability claim.  Pursuing such claims may help deter unsafe practices, prevent future tragedies, and provide justice for those injured or killed. Read the opinion here.

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