G. William Jarman and Glenn M. Farnet recently won a significant products liability victory for Black & Decker (U.S.) Inc., in the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. While using a pneumatic brad nailer, the plaintiff was blinded in one eye after a nail ricocheted off of the work surface. The district court granted Black & Decker’s summary judgment motion on the ground that the plaintiff did not satisfy his burden of proving the “risk/utility” element of a defective design claim under the Louisiana Product Liability Act. The United States Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling.
The plaintiff, an experienced carpenter, was injured while using a DeWalt D51238K Heavy Duty, 18 gauge Brad Nailer. He was not wearing his safety glasses at the time of the accident. The nail gun came equipped with two types of trigger, a “bump fire” trigger and a sequential fire trigger, and was sold with the “bump fire” trigger pre-installed. Switching trigger mechanisms was, however, simple to do, and the alternative “sequential trigger” was attached to the product in a plastic bag with clear instructions on how to switch the trigger mechanism. The plaintiff claimed that the nail gun “double fired,” causing the second-fired nail to ricochet and strike him in the eye. He argued at the district court that pneumatic nail guns with “bump fire” triggers are unreasonably dangerous because of the potential for “double fires,” and that the accident would not have occurred if a sequential trigger had been used.
The plaintiff filed suit against Black & Decker under the Louisiana Products Liability Act, La. R.S. 9:2800.51, et seq. (the “LPLA”), and claimed that the nail gun was unreasonably dangerous in design. Black & Decker moved for summary judgment on numerous grounds, including: (1) plaintiff’s use of the nail gun without wearing safety glasses provided with the product was not a “reasonably anticipated use” since the plaintiff was an experienced carpenter who testified he was aware of the risk of eye injury when using nail guns; (2) the proposed “alternative design” proferred by the plaintiffs was, in fact, provided with the product even though it was not pre-installed; and (3) the plaintiff could not come forward with competent evidence to satisfy the “risk/utility” standard of a defective design claim. The district court granted Black & Decker’s summary judgment because he found that the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence to support a jury finding that the likelihood the product’s design would cause the plaintiff’s injury and the gravity of that injury outweighed the adverse effect of such alternative design on the utility of the product. See, La. R.S. 9:2800.56(2). He found that the risk of injury with this particular product was lower than it was with other types of nail guns because it was designed to fire brad (or finishing) nails and, thus, had a much lower recoil force and was less likely to double fire. He also concluded that the risk of injury was further reduced because the product manual and labels warned about the dangers of double fire, warned about the risk of ricochet, and provided safety glasses with the product. Lastly, the district court noted that the plaintiff did not present adequate evidence to make a prima facie showing that the proposed alternative design would not unduly impact the utility of the nail gun.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit essentially agreed with all of the district court’s findings and conclusions and affirmed the dismissal of the case.
Mr. Jarman argued the case before the Fifth Circuit, and Mr. Farnet argued the case before the district court.