Product Misuse Complete Defense Under Indiana’s Product Liability Act

The Indiana Supreme Court recently held in Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Co. v. Johnson that product misuse, like the defenses of incurred risk and product alteration, operates as a complete defense to bar recovery in product liability cases. While misuse is normally a question of fact for the jury, under this opinion, misuse can be established as a matter of law, for which summary judgment can be granted, when the undisputed facts show the plaintiff misused the product in an unforeseeable manner in direct contravention of the product’s warnings and instructions, and that such misuse caused the harm and could not have been reasonably expected by the seller.

The Plaintiff was seriously injured in this case when he used a grinder designed by the Defendant in an attempt to cut around a truck’s headlight opening to substitute larger headlights. The Defendant’s warnings and instructions directed users to wear safety glasses, to avoid attaching a cut-off disc without a safety guard in place, and to avoid using a cut-off disc with an RPM rating below the minimum of 25,000 RPM. The evidence established that the Plaintiff did not follow these warnings and instructions and the Indiana Supreme Court found that, despite any product defect, had the Plaintiff used a guard and safety glasses, he would not have been injured.

An injury claim arising out of the use of a product falls under the Indiana Products Liability Act (IPLA).  Under the IPLA, a product-liability plaintiff must show that a product was in an unreasonably dangerous defective condition and that the product caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Plaintiffs can establish that a product was defective because of a manufacturing flaw, a defective design, or a failure to warn of dangers while using the product. Strict liability claims under the IPLA are limited to manufacturing defect claims, while claims based upon design defects or inadequate warnings or instructions are determined under negligence principles. While comparative fault principles still apply under the IPLA, the IPLA provides three non-exclusive defenses—incurred risk, product alteration, and product misuse— which based upon this opinion, all now operate as complete defenses, if proven, despite any product defects.

The parties argued about whether the Defendant’s warnings and instructions established that it could have reasonably foreseen the grinder being used in an unforeseeable manner, that is, without safety glasses, with a cut-off disc without a guard in place, and with a cut-off disc that does not meet the minimum RPM rating, which would have allowed the Plaintiff’s claim to survive. However, the Court found that the Defendant could not have reasonably expected a user to disregard the warnings and instructions in all three of these ways. The Court stated, “[the Plaintiff’s] multiple failures to follow the [g]rinder’s instructions were the cause of his injuries and taken together, could not [have been] reasonably expected by a seller.” Thus, after conflicting findings by the trial court and the Court of Appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court found in favor of the Defendant and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the Defendant.

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