Industrial accidents are often the result of a chain of events. There are usually multiple parties whose negligence or intentional failures led to an innocent worker’s injury. Of course, when the victim files a lawsuit, these parties are quick to try and deflect blame to one another.
Hill v. Konecranes, Inc.
An ongoing federal lawsuit in Savannah, Hill v. Konecranes, Inc., provides an apt illustration of this principle. This tragic case involves the 2015 death of a crane operator. The victim worked for International Paper Company (IP) in Augusta, where he used a gantry crane to move timber. Konecranes, Inc., was the company responsible for manufacturing and installing the crane. IP also retained Konecranes to perform regular inspections of the gantry crane.
While the victim was operating the crane one day in June 2015, heavy winds forced the crane “to suddenly travel down its rails,” according to court records. The victim tried to activate the crane’s emergency brakes, but the crane did not stop, eventually crashing into a stop at the end of the tracks. The crane derailed and ejected the victim, causing him to fall to his death. A post-accident inspection revealed that only one of the crane’s four storm brakes had been functioning properly.
The victim’s parents subsequently sued Konecranes for negligence in the death of their son. Konecranes removed the lawsuit from state to federal court. Konecranes then proceeded to file a motion for summary judgment.
In a June 16, 2020, order, U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker denied the motion and said the parents’ lawsuit could proceed to a jury trial. Baker noted that Konecranes arguments in favor of summary judgment were “vague and poorly advanced.” The gist of their motion was that the victim’s fatal accident was not a “foreseeable” event, and that in any case, the intermediate actions (or inaction) of IP, the victim’s employer, broke any “causal connection” between Konecranes’ negligence and the victim’s death.
As Baker explained, the parents did present “sufficient evidence” that Konecranes had a “duty to warn IP and operators of the crane” with respect to the “maximum wind speed in which the crane could be safely operated and the minimum storm brakes necessary to safely operate the crane.” Given that Konecranes was also responsible for inspecting and servicing the victim’s crane, the company had a “duty to exercise reasonable care” in carrying out those responsibilities. Indeed, Konecranes had conducted multiple inspections of the victim’s crane in the year before the accident. Baker said based on this, IP could have “reasonably expected” a warning from Konecranes if the brakes were not working properly. Furthermore, Konecranes acknowledged that IP could not have known the “maximum safe wind speed” in which the crane could operate unless Konecranes told them, which they did not.
While Georgia law does recognize a “sophisticated user” defense when dealing with claims against manufacturers brought by end users, this rule has never been applied to “inspectors and servicers” of defective equipment. Baker said such an application would be “nonsensical,” as it would assume that IP had a duty to discover the defective brakes on its own, but that Konecranes, as the service company, had no duty to notify IP of such a defect.