JOEL GENNETTE V MAGNATEK INCAnnotate this Case
STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS
JOEL GENNETTE and LIBERTY MUTUAL
December 18, 1998
MAGNETEK INCORPORATED, formerly known as
GEMCO ELECTRIC COMPANY,
Macomb Circuit Court
LC No. 93-001952 NP
Before: Murphy, P.J., and Fitzgerald and Gage, JJ.
Defendant appeals as of right from a judgment, following a jury trial, awarding Joel Gennette
(plaintiff) $1,500,000 in this product liability action. We affirm.
Plaintiff’s right hand, wrist, and part of his forearm were crushed by the ram of a power press
when a sprocket became disengaged from the woodruff key on the shaft of a rotary cam limit switch
manufactured by Gemco Electric Company (Gemco) that was attached to the power press. Because of
the separation, the shaft did not turn in unison with the sprocket, and the switch did not properly signal
the brake of the press. Plaintiff argued, in part, that defendant should have provided instructions and
snap rings to use with the grooves already existing on the shaft.
Defendant contends that the trial court erred in finding that plaintiff established a prima facie
case of negligent product design. Although defendant is not specific about the particular ruling of the
trial court being challenged, we will review the issue as a challenge to the trial court’s rulings denying
defendant’s motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Therefore, we must
examine the testimony and all legitimate inferences that may be drawn in the light most favorable to the
plaintiff. Matras v Amoco Oil Co, 424 Mich 675, 681; 385 NW2d 586 (1986). If reasonable jurors
could honestly have reached different conclusions, the motion should have been denied. Id. at 681
682. If reasonable jurors could disagree, neither the trial court nor this Court has the authority to
substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Id. at 682.
We reject defendant’s first argument that, under Owens v Allis-Chalmers Corp, 414 Mich
413; 326 NW2d 372 (1982), plaintiff was required to present evidence regarding the frequency of this
type of accident. Owens indicates that a plaintiff must establish “an issue of fact concerning any
unreasonable risk at the time of the design or manufacture,” id. at 432, and that a combination of the
magnitude of the risk and the reasonableness of the proposed alternative design is critical to assessing
whether a question of fact is presented on that issue. Id. at 430. Because the Owens Court did not
preclude the plaintiff’s action merely on the basis of her failure to provide evidence regarding the
incidence of forklift rollovers, id., plaintiff’s failure to present evidence concerning the frequency of this
type of press accident did not entitle defendant to a directed verdict or judgment notwithstanding the
verdict. See also Reeves v Cincinnati, Inc, 176 Mich App 181, 185-189; 439 NW2d 326 (1989)
(Although plaintiffs lacked a statistical breakdown of the risks of injuries caused by presses with and
without interlocking barrier guards, testimony that power presses in general were unsafe because of
unavoidable cycling was sufficient to raise a question of fact regarding the magnitude of the risks).
We likewise reject defendant’s second argument that plaintiff failed to set forth adequate proof
concerning the reasonableness of a proposed alternative design. Contrary to the premise of defendant’s
argument, plaintiff’s theory at trial was that snap rings should have been provided in addition to, rather
than as a replacement for, the set screw used to hold the sprocket in place. The testimony indicating
that the cost of snap rings was minimal, that snap rings could easily have been installed, especially in light
of the fact that the shaft of the rotary cam limit switch had snap ring grooves, that they would have
provided an additional safeguard to keep the sprocket in place, that they would have stayed on
permanently, and that they would not affect the switch’s utility constituted evidence from which a
reasonable juror could have concluded that this additional precaution was feasible.
Defendant next argues that it owed no duty of care because it is only a component part
manufacturer. This Court has explained that the obligation that generates the duty to avoid foreseeable
injury to another does not extend to the anticipation of how manufactured components, not in and of
themselves dangerous or defective, can become potentially dangerous dependent on the nature of their
integration into a unit designed, assembled, installed and sold by another. Portelli v IR Construction
Products Co, Inc, 218 Mich App 591, 603-604; 554 NW2d 591 (1996). In this case, however, as
discussed above and below, issues of fact existed regarding whether the switch itself was unreasonably
dangerous or defective. Therefore, defendant’s status as a component manufacturer does not entitle it
to a different standard of care. Defendant cannot escape its duty merely by labeling the switch a
Defendant further argues that the sophisticated user defense negated any duty to warn.
Defendant suggests that Compass Industrial Controls (Compass), which installed defendant’s switch on
the press operated by plaintiff, was a sophisticated user, and therefore it owed no duty to instruct or
warn Compass regarding any potential dangers posed by the switch. The rationale behind the
sophisticated user doctrine is that the manufacturer markets a particular product to a class of
professionals that are presumed to be experienced in using and handling the product. Id. at 601.
Because of this special knowledge, the sophisticated user will be relied on by the manufacturer to
disseminate information to the ultimate users regarding the dangers associated with the product; thus, the
manufacturer is relieved of a duty to warn. Id. We reject defendant’s assertion that the defense applies
here because, although Compass recommended the purchase of defendant’s switch and installed the
switch on the press plaintiff was operating at the time of his injury, plaintiff’s employer, Radar Industries,
actually purchased the switch from Gemco for use on its press. Because the evidence indicated that
Radar was not a sophisticated user, we conclude that the defense is inapplicable.
Finally, defendant contends that plaintiff also failed to establish a prima facie case that it
defectively manufactured the switch by improperly setting the woodruff key into the shaft of the switch.
Viewing the testimony and other evidence suggesting that the woodruff key was not installed on the
switch according to industry standards or Gemco blueprints in the light most favorable to plaintiff, we
conclude that reasonable jurors could disagree on whether defendant negligently manufactured the
rotary cam limit switch. Therefore, the trial court correctly denied defendant’s motions for directed
verdict and JNOV. Matras, supra.
/s/ William B. Murphy
/s/ E. Thomas Fitzgerald
/s/ Hilda R. Gage