Federal Court Holds Loganville Employee Responsible for His Own Accident Involving Sewer Cleaner

In product liability cases, defendants will often try and shift blame for any injuries onto the plaintiff. For example, a manufacturer of an allegedly defective product will say it was the plaintiff’s carelessness that caused his accident, rather than any negligence on the manufacturer’s part.

Thurmond v. Federal Signal Corporation

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta recently threw out a product liability lawsuit on just that basis. The plaintiff in the case of Thurmond v. Federal Signal Corporation worked for the City of Loganville, Georgia. The plaintiff and one of his coworkers were tasked with repairing a sewer cleaner known as the Vactor 2013, which is manufactured by the defendant.

In the course of completing the repair–specifically, replacing a damaged hose–the plaintiff’s arm became trapped inside the unit, which caused “severe, permanent, disfiguring, and de-gloving injuries to both his arm and hand,” according to court records.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant in Georgia state court, alleging strict liability and negligence in the manufacture of the Vactor 2013. The case was later transferred to federal court. A federal judge then granted the defense’s motion for summary judgment, i.e., dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint without proceeding to a jury trial on the merits.

The plaintiff appealed the trial judge’s decision to the 11th Circuit. Although this is a federal court, it is still required to interpret and apply Georgia state law with respect to negligence and product liability. As the 11th Circuit explained, Georgia law requires the plaintiff to prove the defendant’s alleged negligence was the “proximate cause” of his injuries. In this context, that means showing that the plaintiff’s injuries were reasonably “foreseeable” by the defendant.

Unfortunately, the evidence in this case worked against the plaintiff. The appeals court cited the City of Loganville’s own safety report, which determined that the plaintiff “was at fault” for the accident due to his own “carelessness and failure to follow safety procedures.” So, even if the defendant was somehow negligent, it did not follow that such negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Additionally, the 11th Circuit pointed to the fact that “of the approximately 500 units of the Vactor 2103 sold there has not been another injury like [the plaintiff’s] since [the defendant] began selling the product in 1993.” At the end of the day, even under Georgia’s strict liability rules, the manufacturer of a product is not required to design a product “as to render it wholly incapable of producing injury.”

Given that both the trial court and the 11th Circuit agreed with the defendant that the plaintiff was responsible for the accident, the appeals court did not address two other arguments raised on appeal. The first was whether or not the Vactor 2103 was, in fact, defectively designed by the defendant. The second was whether the trial judge improperly excluded expert testimony regarding potentially safer designs the defendant could have used.