Hutchison v. Fitzgerald Equipment Co., No. 18-2203 (7th Cir. 2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

A forklift backed over Hutchison’s foot while it was loading his tractor‐trailer. Hutchison’s employer, Borkholder, who owned the forklift, had contracted with Fitzgerald to provide maintenance on the forklift. Hutchison sued Fitzgerald, alleging that Fitzgerald was negligent in failing to warn Borkholder to install a backup alarm and was liable in concert with Borkholder for failing to install such an alarm. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Fitzgerald. OSHA regulations did not require backup alarms on forklifts at the time of the accident; Borkholder, as the owner, was responsible for deciding whether to install a backup alarm. The duty to warn does not encompass a duty to recommend optional safety features to an owner who already knows about them. Hutchison has no evidence of unequal knowledge between Fitzgerald and Borkholder giving rise to a duty to warn. Even if Hutchison had established a voluntary undertaking, he has not established a breach; the mere knowledge of a risk does not impose an affirmative duty. Hutchison has not shown Fitzgerald increased the risk by failing to recommend the installation of a device that was not required nor requested, that was already known to Borkholder. Hutchison has no evidence that he relied to his detriment on Fitzgerald to recommend that Borkholder install a backup alarm. There is no plausible inference that Fitzgerald substantially assisted Borkholder in breaching a duty to Hutchison

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 18 2203 STANLEY HUTCHISON, Plaintiff Appellant, v. FITZGERALD EQUIPMENT COMPANY, INC., Defendant Appellee. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15 cv 06521 — Marvin E. Aspen, Judge. ____________________ ARGUED DECEMBER 5, 2018 — DECIDED DECEMBER 14, 2018 ____________________ Before FLAUM, ROVNER, and SCUDDER, Circuit Judges. FLAUM, Circuit Judge. A forklift backed over Stanley Hutchison’s foot while it was loading product onto his tractor trailer. Hutchison’s employer, who owned the forklift, had contracted with another company to provide maintenance on the forklift. Hutchison sued that third party servicing company, Fitzgerald Equipment Company, Inc. (“Fitzgerald”), alleging that Fitzgerald was negligent in failing to warn his employer to install a backup alarm on the forklift 2 No. 18 2203 and was liable in concert with his employer for failing to install such an alarm. The district court granted Fitzgerald’s motion for summary judgment on the negligence claim and granted Fitzgerald’s motion to dismiss the in concert liability claim. We a rm. I. Background Plaintiff appellant Stanley Hutchison worked as a truck driver for Borkholder Corporation. On August 19, 2013, Hutchison arrived at Borkholder’s facility in Metamora, Illi nois with an empty tractor trailer to pick up a load of bundled foam insulation. Another Borkholder employee, Chad Schierer, was the primary forklift driver and yard foreman at the Metamora facility and was responsible for loading and unloading deliveries with a forklift. While Schierer was load ing Hutchison’s trailer, he reversed the forklift and ran over Hutchison’s left foot with the forklift’s right rear tire. Schierer did not see Hutchison when he reversed, and Hutchison did not hear a backup alarm. At the time of the accident, Schierer was driving a Cater pillar Model No. DP40 forklift that Borkholder owned. Pursu ant to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) regulations, Borkholder was responsible for con trolling, maintaining, and inspecting the forklift on a daily ba sis. Defendant appellee Fitzgerald is a service and repair com pany that services forklifts. Fitzgerald and Borkholder en tered into an Operational Maintenance Service Agreement (the “Agreement”), under which Fitzgerald provided preven tative maintenance every ninety days to the forklift involved in the accident. The Agreement is a single page, applies only to this specific forklift, and requires Fitzgerald “to perform the No. 18 2203 3 lubrication and operational maintenance inspection as de scribed on the Operational Maintenance Report form.”1 The parties agree that the forklift was not designed, man ufactured, or shipped to its original purchaser with a backup alarm and that no regulations required the forklift to have a backup alarm as of August 19, 2013, the date of the accident. They dispute, however, whether the forklift had a backup alarm installed when it rolled over Hutchison’s foot. Several Borkholder employees testified that they could not recall whether the forklift had a backup alarm that day. Schierer acknowledged that photographs of the forklift, taken the day after the accident, showed no backup alarm. It is also undisputed that Fitzgerald serviced the forklift several times in 2013 prior to the accident. A Fitzgerald tech nician inspected the forklift on April 5, 2013 and performed repairs on April 22 and 25, 2013. The technician did not re member whether the forklift had a backup alarm; he did not note a malfunctioning backup alarm during his inspection, in dicating that either there was no backup alarm installed or the alarm was operational. Another Fitzgerald technician re paired the forklift in July 2013, and he too did not recall whether the forklift had a backup alarm. Following the acci dent, Borkholder requested another company, HuppToyotal ift, install a backup alarm on the forklift. On October 1, 2013, a HuppToyotalift technician installed a backup alarm on the forklift and a rmed that it did not have a backup alarm at the time he installed one. 1 Neither party included the Operational Maintenance Report form in the record before the district court. 4 No. 18 2203 On July 27, 2015, Hutchison filed suit against Fitzgerald in the Northern District of Illinois. On May 18, 2017, Hutchison filed a first amended complaint alleging two theories of liabil ity—in concert liability (Count I) and negligence (Count II). After the district court granted Fitzgerald’s motion to dismiss Count I without prejudice and the parties completed briefing on Fitzgerald’s motion for summary judgment as to Count II, Hutchison filed a second amended complaint amending Count I, and Fitzgerald again moved to dismiss. On May 4, 2018, the district court granted Fitzgerald’s motion to dismiss Hutchison’s in concert liability claim and motion for sum mary judgment on Hutchison’s negligence claim. Hutchison appeals both rulings. II. Discussion A. Negligence Claim We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, “con struing all facts and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the party against whom the motion under consideration was filed.” Hess v. Bd. of Trs. of S. Ill. Univ., 839 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2016). “Summary judgment is appropriate where there are no genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Id. (citing Fed R. Civ. P. 56(a)). The moving party “always bears the initial respon sibility” to identify the portions of the record “which it be lieves demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “When the moving party has carried its burden …, its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. No. 18 2203 5 Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Instead, the non movant must set forth specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 587. To prove a defendant’s negligence under Illinois law, a plainti must establish “the existence of a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plainti , a breach of that duty, and an injury proximately caused by that breach.” Buechel v. United States, 746 F.3d 753, 763–64 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Thompson v. Gordon, 948 N.E.2d 39, 45 (Ill. 2011)). Whether a duty exists is a question of law. Thompson, 948 N.E.2d at 45. To determine whether a duty exists, a court must “ask whether a plainti and a defendant stood in such a relationship to one another that the law imposed upon the defendant an obligation of rea sonable conduct for the benefit of the plainti .” Vesely v. Arm slist LLC, 762 F.3d 661, 665 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Marshall v. Burger King Corp., 856 N.E.2d 1048, 1057 (Ill. 2006)). Here, Hutchison alleges that Fitzgerald had a duty either to discover and disclose an inoperative backup alarm on the Caterpillar forklift, or to recommend that Borkholder install a backup alarm on the forklift because another forklift at the Metamora facility had a backup alarm.2 1. Duty to Warn A “duty to warn exists where there is unequal knowledge, actual or constructive [of a dangerous condition], and the de fendant[,] possessed of such knowledge, knows or should know that harm might or could occur if no warning is given.” Happel v. Wal Mart Stores, Inc., 766 N.E.2d 1118, 1123 (Ill. 2002) (alterations in original) (quoting Schellenberg v. Winnetka Park 2 Hutchison’s arguments appear to conflate Fitzgerald’s alleged du ties to Borkholder with duties to Hutchison, as a Borkholder employee. 6 No. 18 2203 Dist., 596 N.E.2d 93, 97 (Ill. App. Ct. 1992)). Hutchison argues Fitzgerald had unequal knowledge of the risks and hazards of operating a forklift without a backup alarm, and as such, Fitz gerald had a duty to warn Borkholder of those dangers. This argument fails, however, because Hutchison does not cite any evidence in the record that Fitzgerald knew of risks that Bork holder did not. Hutchison claims that Borkholder relied on Fitzgerald to make recommendations as to repairs that should be performed on the forklift, but the parties dispute whether the forklift even had a backup alarm, let alone one that was inoperable and in need of repair. Indeed, though Hutchison characterizes the existence of a backup alarm on the forklift as in dispute, he has not pre sented any evidence from which a jury could draw a reason able inference in his favor on this point. It is undisputed that the forklift was not designed, manufactured, or shipped to its original owner with a backup alarm. After the accident, an other service company installed a backup alarm and a rmed that there was no backup alarm on the forklift when that in stallation occurred. And pictures from the day after the acci dent show no backup alarm on the forklift. Although several witnesses could not recall whether the forklift had a backup alarm, their “metaphysical doubt” is insu cient to create a genuine issue of material fact. See Matushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586. To infer, based on a handful of witnesses unable to recall whether the forklift had a backup alarm, that the forklift in fact had such an alarm, is impermissible speculation.3 See Her zog v. Graphic Packaging Int’l, Inc., 742 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 3 In reply, Hutchison points to Schierer’s testimony that there were wires on the back of the forklift and that “he could see no other reason for wires on the pillar on the driver’s side other than a backup alarm.” The No. 18 2203 7 2014) (“[I]nferences that are supported by only speculation or conjecture will not defeat a summary judgment motion.” (quoting Tubergen v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 517 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2008))). As further evidence of unequal knowledge, Hutchison points to expert testimony suggesting forklift dealers have su perior appreciation of the hazards involved in reversing fork lifts. But another forklift at the Borkholder facility—not ser viced by Fitzgerald—had a backup alarm, indicating Bork holder was well aware of the availability and use of backup alarms. Moreover, as Hutchison acknowledges, OSHA regu lations did not require backup alarms on forklifts at the time of the accident and Borkholder, as the owner of the forklift, was responsible for deciding whether to install a backup alarm. The duty to warn does not encompass a duty to recom mend optional safety features to an owner who already knows about them. In sum, Hutchison has not pointed to any evidence of unequal knowledge between Fitzgerald and Bork holder giving rise to a duty to warn. 2. Voluntary Undertaking Hutchison also argues that Fitzgerald is liable under a voluntary undertaking theory of liability. “In Illinois, a party to a contract may be liable in tort to a third party who otherwise has no enforceable rights under the contract under a voluntary undertaking theory of liability.” Jakubowski v. Alden Bennett Constr. Co., 763 N.E.2d 790, 799 (Ill. App. Ct. 2002). Pursuant to the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A, which Illinois has adopted, a party is liable for breach of a potential purpose of the wires, too, is mere speculation and is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact at summary judgment. 8 No. 18 2203 voluntary undertaking if: (a) “a party undertakes to do something and then fails to exercise reasonable care in a way that increases a third party’s risk of harm”; (b) a party “undertakes to perform a duty that a di erent party was obligated to perform and then negligently fulfills its duty”; or (c) “a third party relies to its detriment on the fact that a duty has been voluntarily undertaken.” LM ex rel. KM v. United States, 344 F.3d 695, 701 (7th Cir. 2003). Hutchison contends that Fitzgerald “voluntarily under took [the] responsibility to advise Borkholder to install a backup alarm on its Caterpillar tractor if other forklifts at Borkholder’s Metamora facility had backup alarms.” In sup port, he cites the depositions of Patrick Boyer, a forklift tech nician with Fitzgerald, and Travis Cowley, general manager of Fitzgerald. Cowley testified that he recommends to custom ers purchasing forklifts that they have the same safety options their existing trucks have. When asked if he recommends that facilities install backup alarms on their forklifts, Boyer re sponded that he would not recommend installing a backup alarm unless the other forklifts at that facility had backup alarms. Hutchison points to these statements as evidence that Fitzgerald undertook a voluntary duty to advise Borkholder to install a backup alarm on the Caterpillar forklift because the other forklift at the Metamora facility had one. We disa gree with this logic. Fitzgerald’s employees’ answers to hypo thetical questions do not establish such a voluntary undertak ing because Hutchison does not point to any evidence that Cowley or Boyer knew the other forklift at the Metamora fa cility had a backup alarm. No. 18 2203 9 Even if they knew about the alarm on the other forklift, the business practice Boyer and Crowley testified to does not cre ate any legal duty to Borkholder because “[u]nder the volun tary undertaking theory of liability, the duty of care to be im posed upon a defendant is limited to the extent of its under taking.” Frye v. Medicare Glaser Corp., 605 N.E.2d 557, 560–61 (Ill. 1992) (declining to hold that a pharmacist had a duty to warn a patient of all potential side e ects of a drug merely because she chose to warn about one side e ect); see also, e.g., LM, 344 F.3d at 701 (“[A] voluntary undertaking is just that— voluntary—and as such, the scope of the duty that is assumed is limited to the extent of the undertaking.”); Castro v. Brown’s Chicken & Pasta, Inc., 732 N.E.2d 37, 42 (Ill. App. Ct. 2000). Here, Fitzgerald’s undertaking was limited to the scope of the contract—“to perform the lubrication and operational maintenance inspection[s]”; Hutchison has not pointed to any evidence establishing that Fitzgerald undertook any addi tional duty to Borkholder outside the scope of the Agreement. Even if Hutchison had established a voluntary undertak ing—which he has not—he has not established a breach under any of the three prongs of § 324A. Under § 324A(a), Hutchison argues that Fitzgerald negligently performed its voluntary undertaking because various witnesses thought the accident “would not have occurred” if the forklift had a backup alarm. But mere knowledge of a risk does not impose an a rmative duty. See LM, 344 F.3d at 701. Hutchison has not shown Fitzgerald increased the risk of harm by failing to recommend installation of a device that was not required by law nor requested by the forklift owner and a device that was already known to Borkholder. 10 No. 18 2203 Nor can Hutchison establish, under § 324A(b), that Fitz gerald supplanted Borkholder’s duty to conduct daily inspec tions and maintenance on the Caterpillar forklift. To be liable under § 324A(b), the defendant “must supplant the duty it undertakes from the party that originally held the duty, not merely assist or supplement the service provided by the other.” Padilla v. Hunter Douglas Window Coverings, Inc., No. 09 CV 1222, 2012 WL 3265002, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 8, 2012). Here, there is no evidence in the record that Fitzgerald had the power, without Borkholder’s authorization, to install the backup alarm or that Fitzgerald did more than assist or sup plement Borkholder’s daily control and maintenance of the forklift. Finally, as to § 324A(c), Hutchison has not put forth evi dence showing that he relied to his detriment on Fitzgerald to recommend that Borkholder install a backup alarm. In cases of nonfeasance—“omission to perform a voluntary undertak ing”—as opposed to misfeasance—“negligent performance of a voluntary undertaking”—Illinois law requires a plainti to show that he relied on the defendant’s actions. Thornton v. M7 Aerospace LP, 796 F.3d 757, 768 (7th Cir. 2015). Here, Hutchison asserts Fitzgerald was negligent in failing to rec ommend installation of a backup alarm (or, alternatively, in failing to repair an inoperable backup alarm), and therefore, his claim is one of nonfeasance. See id. at 762, 768–69 (constru ing plainti ’s theory as liability for nonfeasance where plain ti alleged defendant manufacturer failed to advise aircraft owner to install upgraded warning system). His claim fails because he has not established the required reliance.4 4 Despite Hutchison’s insistence to the contrary, this case is not like Wakulich v. Mraz, 785 N.E.2d 843 (Ill. 2003). In Wakulich, the defendants No. 18 2203 11 In sum, Hutchison has not established Fitzgerald owed a duty to recommend installation of a backup alarm on the Cat erpillar forklift. We thus a rm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Fitzgerald on the negligence claim. B. In Concert Liability Claim We review de novo a district court’s grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, accepting all well pleaded facts in the complaint as true and drawing all reasonable in ferences in the plainti ’s favor. Pierce v. Zoetis, Inc., 818 F.3d 274, 277 (7th Cir. 2016). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the plainti must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausi bility when the plainti pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In concert liability is a relationship between tortfeasors in which one tortfeasor acting in concert with others “is legally responsible for the actions of the other individuals.” Woods v. coerced an underage girl into consuming alcohol to the point of uncon sciousness, provided minimal care for her in their home, and prevented others from calling 911. Id. at 846. The court determined that plaintiff’s theory was not that defendants failed to act at all (i.e. one of nonfeasance) but that defendants voluntarily undertook a duty of care for decedent, which they negligently performed, and affirmatively prevented others from caring for her. Id. at 856–57. Thus, defendants’ alleged affirmative misconduct was misfeasance, which does not require proof of reliance by the injured party. Id. That is not the case here, as Hutchison’s claims are premised upon Fitzgerald’s failure to act rather than any affirmative mis conduct. 12 No. 18 2203 Cole, 693 N.E.2d 333, 337 (Ill. 1998). Illinois has adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 876 to determine whether in dividuals have acted in concert to commit a tortious act. See id. at 335–36. Section 876 provides that a tortfeasor is liable for harm resulting to a third person from the tortious conduct of another if he (a) “does a tortious act in concert with the other or pursuant to a common design with him”; (b) “knows that the other’s conduct constitutes a breach of duty and gives sub stantial assistance or encouragement to the other so to con duct himself”; or (c) “gives substantial assistance to the other in accomplishing a tortious result and his own conduct, sepa rately considered, constitutes a breach of duty to the third person.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 876. To be liable un der § 876, the “defendant’s conduct must be ‘more than be nign,’” and “[t]he defendant must actively participate in the tortious conduct of another.” Rogers v. Reagan, 823 N.E.2d 1016, 1020 (Ill. App. Ct. 2005) (quoting Sanke v. Bechina, 576 N.E.2d 1212, 1218 (Ill. App. Ct. 1991)). Hutchison only raises arguments under subsections (b) and (c) of § 876. He claims that Fitzgerald acted in concert with Borkholder by “allowing, directing and encouraging Borkholder and its employees to operate forklifts without a critical safety device, a backup alarm,” and by “failing to rec ommend the installation and/or repair of the backup alarm on the Caterpillar forklift, despite other forklifts and trailers at Borkholder’s Metamora facility having backup alarms.” Be cause liability under subsections (b) and (c) is based on the defendant’s “substantial assistance” in the tortious conduct, a plainti must demonstrate “that the defendant did not merely fail to act, but also assisted the third party.” Simmons v. Homatas, 925 N.E.2d 1089, 1100 (Ill. 2010). No. 18 2203 13 Hutchison cannot succeed on his in concert liability claims because his allegations against Fitzgerald are premised upon Fitzgerald’s inaction—i.e. Fitzgerald’s failure to install and/or repair a backup alarm on the Caterpillar forklift. He conclu sorily asserts that Borkholder committed a tort “by operating a forklift without a critical safety feature, a backup alarm” (ig noring that such an allegedly “critical” feature was not man datory under any regulations) and argues that Fitzgerald sub stantially encouraged Borkholder’s tortious conduct by fail ing to make a recommendation to install an alarm. In Sim mons, however, the Illinois Supreme Court explained that a defendant cannot be held liable under in concert liability for failing to act; rather, a defendant must “a rmatively assist[]” in the tortious act. 925 N.E.2d at 1100; see also Kohn v. Laidlaw Transit, Inc., 808 N.E.2d 564, 575 (Ill. App. Ct. 2004) (“[I]t is not enough that a defendant assist or encourage another to en gage in a tort; rather, to subject a defendant to liability, the assistance or encouragement must be substantial, not merely slight.”); Umble v. Sandy McKie & Sons, Inc., 690 N.E.2d 157, 159 (Ill. App. Ct. 1998) (“We do not equate failing to prevent certain conduct with actively encouraging that conduct.”); Sanke, 576 N.E.2d at 1218 (“[S]ection 876 require[s] such af firmative conduct that one’s own actions create a duty.”). Hutchison has not pleaded any a rmative conduct on the part of Fitzgerald that would amount to substantial assistance under § 876(b) or (c).5 5 Nor are there any nonconclusory allegations in the operative com plaint that Fitzgerald knew Borkholder’s conduct constituted a tort. See Norman v. Brandt, 929 N.E.2d 14, 20 (Ill. App. Ct. 2010) (“[S]ection 876(b) applies when the person did not commit an act that would be a tort, but that person gave substantial assistance or encouragement to another party 14 No. 18 2203 The nonconclusory factual allegations in the operative complaint do not establish a plausible inference that Fitzger ald substantially assisted Borkholder in breaching a duty to Hutchison.6 As such, we a rm the dismissal of his in concert liability claim. III. Conclusion For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court. whose actions constituted a tort and that person knew that the other per son’s conduct constituted a tort.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). 6 Additionally, for the same reason we affirmed dismissal of the neg ligence claim, Hutchison cannot rely on § 876(c) because he has not estab lished Fitzgerald’s conduct “separately considered, constitutes a breach of duty.” See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 876 cmt. e (“When one person ally participates in causing a particular result in accordance with an agree ment with another, he is responsible for the result of the united effort if his act, considered by itself, constitutes a breach of duty and is a substan tial factor in causing the result … .”).
Primary Holding
The Appellate Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of third-party servicing company, Fitzgerald Equipment Co., as related to Plaintiff Hutchison’s claims for negligence and in-concert liability.
Facts
Stanley Hutchison worked as a truck driver. On August 19, 2013, Hutchison arrived at his employer’s facility in Metamora, Illinois with an empty tractor trailer to pick up a load of foam insulation. The trailer was being loaded by a co-worker using a forklift. While loading the trailer, Hutchison’s co-worker reversed the forklift and ran over Hutchison’s left foot. The co-worker did not see Hutchison while backing up the forklift, and Hutchison did not hear a backup alarm.

Hutchison’s co-worker was operating a Caterpillar Mode No. DP40 forklift owned by Hutchison’s employer. Hutchison’s employer had entered into an “operational maintenance service agreement” with Fitzgerald Equipment Co, a service and repair company, to service the forklifts. The agreement obligated Fitzgerald Equipment Co. to provide preventative maintenance every 90 days to the forklift that was involved in Hutchison’s accident.

The contract specifically required Fitzgerald Equipment Co. “to perform the lubrication and operational maintenance inspection as described on the Operational Maintenance Report Form. The forklift was not designed, manufactured, or shipped to its original purchaser with a backup alarm, nor were there any regulations as of August 19, 2013 (the date of the accident) that required such an alarm to be installed on the forklift.

Fitzgerald Equipment Company serviced this particular forklift several times in 2013 prior to the date of the accident. The technician that performed the servicing was unable to recall whether the forklift had a backup alarm, but his inspection reports did not make note of any malfunctioning backup alarm.

After the accident, another servicing company installed a backup alarm on the forklift. At the time the backup alarm was installed, the company performing the installation noted that there was not a backup alarm on the forklift prior to the installation.
Issues & Holdings

Issue: Duty to Warn
Holding: Hutchison argued that Fitzgerald Equipment Co. had unequal knowledge of the risks and hazards of operating a forklift without a backup alarm, and therefore had a duty to warn Borkholder (Hutchison’s employer) of those dangers.

However, the parties disputed whether the forklift even had a backup alarm, let alone one that was not operating and in need of repair.

The court held that although several witnesses could not recall whether or not the forklift had a backup alarm, such “metaphysical doubt” is not sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact. The court went on to explain that “to infer, based on a handful of witnesses unable to recall whether the forklift had a backup alarm, that the forklift in fact had such an alarm, is impermissible speculation.”

In addition, another forklift owned by Borkholder (Hutchison’s employer) that was not serviced by Fitzgerald Equipment Co. did have a backup alarm. The court reasoned that this showed “Borkholder was well aware of the availability and use of backup alarms”.

OSHA regulations did not require backup alarms on forklifts at the time of the accident.

The court stated that “[t]he duty to warm does not encompass a duty to recommend optional safety features to an owner who already knows about them.”

Plaintiff Hutchison’s duty to warn allegations fail.

Issue: Voluntary Undertaking
Holding: In Illinois, a party to a contract may be liable in tort to a third party who otherwise has no enforceable rights under the contract under a voluntary undertaking theory of liability. Hutchison alleges that Fitzgerald Equipment Co. took on the responsibility to advise Borkholder (Hutchison’s employer) to install a backup alarm on its Caterapillar forklift if other forklifts at the facility had backup alarms.

The court disagreed, noting that “under the voluntary undertaking theory of liability, the duty of care to be imposed upon a defendant is limited to the extent of its undertaking.” Fitzgerald Equipment Co.’s undertaking in this circumstance was “to perform the lubrication and operational maintenance inspections.” The court wrote that Hutchison had not pointed to any evidence establishing that Fitzgerald Equipment Co. undertook any additional duty outside the scope of the agreement.

The court also related that “mere knowledge of a risk does not impose an affirmative duty”, and that Hutchison failed to show that Fitzgerald Equipment Co. increased the risk of harm by failing to recommend the installation of a backup alarm on the offending forklift.

Hutchison also failed to establish that Fitzgerald Equipment Co. “supplanted Borkholder’s duty to conduct daily inspections and maintenance on the Caterpillar forklift.” The court noted that there was no evidence in the record that Fitzgerald had the power, absent Borkholder’s authorization, to install a backup alarm.

Nor was Hutchison able to show that he relied on Fitzgerald Equipment Co. to his detriment. In order to claim nonfeasance (omission to perform a voluntary undertaking) as opposed to misfeasance (negligent performance of a voluntary undertaking), Illinois requires that a plaintiff show he relied on the defendant’s actions. Here, Hutchinson failed to establish the reliance required to prove such nonfeasance.

Issue: In-Concert Liability
Holding: In-concert liability is a relationship between tortfeasors in which one tortfeasor acting in concert with others is legally responsible for the actions of the other individuals. Hutchison’s claim fails because his allegations against Fitzgerald Equipment Co. are based upon Fitzgerald’s failure to install and / or repair a backup alarm on the forklift. Hutchison argued that “Borkholder committed a tort by operating a forklift without a critical safety feature, and that Fitzgerald Equipment Co. substantially encouraged the tortious conduct by failing to recommend installation of an alarm.”

However, in Illinois a defendant cannot be held liable under in-concert liability for failing to act. The defendant must “affirmatively assist” in the tortious act. It is not enough that a defendant assist or encourage in a tort. Illinois does not equate failing to prevent certain conduct with actively encouraging that conduct.

Therefore, Hutchison’s in-concert liability claim fails.

Opinions

Per Curiam

  • Joel Martin Flaum
  • Ilana Kara Diamond Rovner
  • Michael Yale Scudder, Jr.
Case Commentary
When the moving party has carried its burden in a motion for summary judgment, its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. In this case, Plaintff Hutchison’s arguments were not well grounded in the evidence that was presented to the court. Sometimes the facts in a case are insurmountable, and it is folly to persist in specious arguments absent any factual basis.

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