Got a problem? Go to the source. Got a product problem? Go to its origin.
At least that is what Plaintiff Timothy Farkas, and his expert, should have done to avoid dismissal of Farkas’ product liability claims.
In Farkas v. Addition Manufacturing Technologies, LLC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed an Eastern District of Missouri judgment, finding that Farkas failed to establish that the product at issue, a tube-end forming machine, was inherently defective or dangerous. The Court’s ruling centered on Farkas’ failure to provide evidence of a defect that existed when the product entered the stream of commerce.
Farkas sued Addition Manufacturing after his fingers were severely injured by a tube-end forming machine, which uses a hydraulic clamp to crimp metal tubes. Addition was the machine designer’s successor. The predecessor company sold the machine in 1992 with a point-of-operation guard, which prevented the operator’s fingers from fitting in the clamps that went around the tube to shape the end of the tube when there was a tube in the machine. The specific guard present at the time of sale, however, only applied to a single size of tubing, which was specified by the original customer. The machine, however, was technically capable of crimping multiple sizes of tube.
Various companies bought and sold the machine over the years. In 2014, Farkas’ employer purchased the machine, whose guard was still configured only for a single size of tubing. Because Farkas’ employer wanted to process multiple sizes of tubing, it hired a company to alter the guard, to accommodate multiple sizes of tube. Farkas was subsequently injured when he used the machine to crimp a piece of tube that was smaller than the guard.
Farkas brought his lawsuit against Addition for strict liability for the product’s design defect and failure to warn about the defect and for negligently manufacturing the product. Addition, as the legal successor to the manufacturer who made the machine in its original configuration, moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Farkas was required to and failed to provide evidence that the original guard on the machine was inadequate at the time of the machine’s initial sale.
To succeed on the strict liability claim for product defect, Farkas had to offer proof that:
- The machine was in an unreasonably defective condition when put to a reasonably anticipated use;
- The machine was used in a manner reasonably anticipated; and
- The machine was damaged as a direct result of such defective condition as existed when the product was sold.
To succeed on a strict liability failure-to-warn claim, Farkas had to prove that:
- Addition sold the machine in question in the course of its business;
- The machine was unreasonably dangerous at the time of sale when used as reasonably anticipated without knowledge of its characteristics;
- Addition did not give adequate warning of the danger;
- The machine was used in a reasonably anticipated manner; and
- Farkas was damaged as a direct result of the machine being sold without an adequate warning.
The common link? Both claims require Farkas to go back to the machine’s (and the guard’s) beginnings. Farkas’ expert, however, relied on the wrong guard on the machine. Indeed, the expert relied on the guard present at the time of the injury, not the guard present at the time Addition’s predecessor sold the machine in 1992. As such, there was no evidence of the original guard’s appropriateness and relevant industry standards.
In other words, Farkas was required to offer proof that the machine was defective or dangerous at the time of sale by the predecessor of Addition to the original customer – not at the time of the sale to Farkas’ employer or the time of Farkas’ injury. However, Farkas’ failure to go back to the machine’s origin cost him his lawsuit and his appeal.
In an update to our below post, Senate Bill 591 (which seeks to impose stricter standards for the application of punitive damages) cleared the Missouri House on May 12, 2020 in a 98-51 vote. The Bill, now on its way to Governor Parson for his signature, will likely go into effect on August 28, 2020. Governor Parson is expected to sign the measure without veto.
Missouri Senate Approves Stricter Standard for Punitive Damages Claims
March 20, 2020 | Jonathan Benevides and Ashtyn Kean
A bill that would impose stricter standards for the application of punitive damages was swiftly advanced by the Missouri Senate late last month. Senate Bill 591 would establish new procedural and substantive restrictions on punitive damages. Currently, to recover punitive damages in Missouri, a plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with either “indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others.” Schroeder v. Lester Cox Medical Center, Inc., 833 S.W.2d 411, 413 (Mo. Ct. App. 1992). Senate Bill 591, would increase the plaintiff’s burden of proof and require a plaintiff to prove that the defendant either “intentionally harmed the plaintiff without just cause” or acted with “deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others.”
In addition to increasing the plaintiff’s burden of proof, the Bill also changes the procedure for prosecuting punitive damages claims. Under current Missouri law, a plaintiff may seek punitive damages in his/her initial pleading. Senate Bill 591 would prohibit a plaintiff from including a claim for punitive damages in his/her initial pleading, and require that the plaintiff first seek leave of court to assert a claim for punitive damages. The court shall grant leave only if it concludes that based on the evidence to be admitted at trial, the trier of fact could “reasonably conclude, based on clear and convincing evidence, that the standards for a punitive damages award … have been met.”
According to Senate Majority Leader and Columbia Republican, Caleb Rowden, “the punitive damages legislation is the top priority for Republicans among various proposals targeting liability lawsuits.” The Bill’s sponsor, Republican Bill White stated, “the Bill is intended to prevent punitive damage claims from being used as leverage to get bigger settlements from businesses in cases that might involve negligence but not intentionally malicious actions.”
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A recent opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reminds practitioners that federal jurisdiction is born from the substance of the claims made and relief sought, not by the titles given to each cause of action. In Wullschleger v. Royal Canin U.S.A., Inc., 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 8038 (8th Cir., March 13, 2020), the plaintiffs sought to represent a class of Missouri plaintiffs who purchased prescription pet foods at premium prices from defendants Royal Canin and Purina PetCare. Plaintiffs alleged they were deceived into believing the products were approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri remanded the case to the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court, finding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The Eighth Circuit granted defendants’ petition for review of the order of remand, limiting its review to the issue of federal question jurisdiction. Upon review of the plaintiff’s Petition, the court concluded federal question jurisdiction in fact did exist and vacated the district court’s remand order.
The case involved the defendants’ “prescription” pet foods, which require the purchaser to consult with a veterinarian and obtain a prescription before purchase. The defendants represented that the pet foods are therapeutic formulas for specific health issues and may not be tolerated by all pets. Defendants did not, however submit these pet foods for evaluation by the FDA and, as such, a prescription is not required by law. Plaintiffs’ Jackson County Petition alleged only state law claims, including violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, Missouri antitrust laws, and Missouri unjust enrichment law.
On review, the Eighth Circuit noted that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of a plaintiff’s properly pleaded complaint. In this way, a plaintiff controls whether federal jurisdiction exists, and he may avoid federal question jurisdiction by relying exclusively on state law. Plaintiffs here argued they merely asserted claimed violations of federal law as elements of their state causes of action, which the United States Supreme Court in Merrell Dow Pharm. Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 814 (1986), has held insufficient on its own to confer federal question jurisdiction.
The appellate court disagreed with plaintiffs. While the Merchandising Practices Act claim, as alleged, could likely be resolved without depending on federal law, plaintiffs chose to premise their Missouri antitrust and unjust enrichment claims on violations and interpretations of federal law. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated the Federal Drug and Cosmetics Act and were non-compliant with FDA guidance. The antitrust and unjust enrichment claims, therefore, cannot be adjudicated without reliance on and explication of federal law. The court also noted that plaintiffs’ prayer for relief requires the interpretation and application of federal law. Specifically, plaintiffs prayed for judgment finding defendants violated both state and federal law and compelling them to comply with all federal and Missouri provisions applicable to pet food as a “drug.” In this way, according to the court, the face of the plaintiffs’ Petition gave rise to federal question jurisdiction, and plaintiffs’ isolated focus on their state law claims was nothing more than an apparent attempt to avoid federal jurisdiction.
The opinion underscores a plaintiff’s power to avoid federal question jurisdiction through his or her own pleadings. It also serves to remind defendants seeking removal of the importance of looking beyond the presence of purely state law claims to find allegations which might support federal question jurisdiction.
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