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Forklift Manufacturer Faces Federal Trial Over Injured Worker

Many Georgia workers are injured on the job due to defective equipment. While workers’ compensation covers an employer’s liability for such accidents, the injured worker may still file a civil lawsuit against the third-party manufacturers who were responsible for designing or manufacturing the equipment.

Vazquez v. Raymond Corporation

For example, a federal judge in Gainesville, Georgia, recently rejected an attempt to dismiss a product liability claim filed by a local forklift operator. In July 2016, the plaintiff was using a forklift rented by his employer to move a pallet of tires in a warehouse. At some point, the plaintiff “lost control of the forklift and crashed into a metal column,” which ended up crushing his left foot, according to court records.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the company that manufactured the forklift. In his lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged there was defects in the design and manufacturing of the forklift. In addition, the plaintiff alleged the defendant failed to properly warn him of the risks of using the forklift.

Product liability lawsuits often turn on the testimony of expert witnesses. This case is no exception. The plaintiff presented two such experts. In response, the defendant asked the trial judge to exclude the witnesses’ testimony as inadmissible under federal court rules and grant summary judgment to the defense.

The judge decided to restrict the scope of the experts’ testimony rather than exclude it altogether. In the case of one expert, the judge said he was not qualified to “provide his own opinions” regarding the design of forklifts, but he could testify as to the “bailing off instructions and their potential effect upon users of the stand-up forklift in this case.” As to the second expert, his views were admissible simply to rebut testimony offered by a proposed defense expert witness.

As to the summary judgment motion itself, the judge denied the defense’s request to end the case. In particular, the judge explained the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to warrant a trial on his defective design claim. Under Georgia law, a manufacturer can be held liable for “choosing a particular product design, given … the risk posed by the design, the usefulness of the product in that condition, and the burden on the manufacturer to take the necessary steps to eliminate the risk.” Here, the plaintiff offered evidence that “a safer, alternative design existed when [the defendant] manufactured the forklift at issue here, that [the defendant’s] design posed a grave risk of lower leg injury for operators, and that this danger could have been avoided or at least greatly minimized without impairing the usefulness of the forklift or making it significantly more expensive to purchase.”

That said, the judge ruled the plaintiff could not proceed with his demand for punitive damages against the defendant. In Georgia, punitive damages are only allowed in product liability cases where there has been “more than gross negligence,” such as a manufacturer deliberately ignoring government safety standards. That was not the case here, the judge said, so punitive damages were not appropriate.