• Manufacturer Liability for Injury Caused by use with Another Company's Product
  • December 13, 2013
  • Law Firm: Varner Brandt LLP - Riverside Office
  • According to a recent California Appellate Court decision, the answer is NO. In Sanchez v. Hitachi Koki, Co., LTD., et al. (2013 2nd App. Dist.) 217 Cal.App.4th 948 [158 Cal.Rtpr.3d 907], plaintiff Andres Sanchez drove and maintained trucks for his employer. Sanchez was attempting to cut a tire with his own four-inch grinder to make a motor mount when it stuck in the rubber. He went to a hardware store and purchased a larger Hitachi grinder and a Razor Back tooth saw blade. Sanchez claimed that the store personnel recommended use of the two items together, but the safety instructions that came with the Hitachi grinder specifically warned that saw blades should never be used with the grinder.

    After returning to his workplace, Sanchez placed the saw blade on the spindle of the grinder and once more tried to cut the tire. When the blade came into contact with the rubber he lost control of the grinder and the saw blade cut his hand. The trial court granted Hitachi’s Motion for Summary Judgment (a court order ruling that no factual issues remain to be tried and therefore a cause of action or all causes of action in a complaint can be decided upon certain facts without trial), and the Second District Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

    Sanchez claimed that Hitachi should be liable because the saw blade was compatible with the grinder and also because the saw blade was not guarded as normally would have been on an electric saw. In addition, plaintiff’s expert claimed that the grinder was defective because it did not have a kickback prevention feature, which would have stopped the blade immediately upon binding.

    The Sanchez Court relied heavily on O’Neil v. Crane Co., (2012) 53 Cal.4th 335 [135 Cal.Rptr.3d 288, 266 P.3d 987]. In that case, the California Supreme Court held that there is no duty to warn about dangers arising entirely from another manufacturer’s product, even if it is foreseeable that products will be used together. Mere compatibility for use with dangerous components or accessories is not enough to render a product defective. The Court held that it would be an unreasonable burden for manufacturers to have to investigate the potential risks of all other products and replacement parts that might foreseeably be used with their own product, not to mention having to warn about and design around all the potential risks with unintended combined use.

    One exception noted by O’Neil is where the intended use of a product inevitably creates a hazardous condition, such as when a manufacturer specifically designs its product for combined use with a third-party product “for the very activity that created the hazardous condition.” For instance, in Tellez-Cordova v. Campbell-Hausfeld/Scott Fetzger Co., (2004) 129 Cal.App.4th 577, power tools manufactured by the defendants were specifically designed to be used with abrasive discs to grind and sand metals. The combined use of the tools and discs resulted in the release of toxic dust that caused the plaintiff’s lung disease. In this case, the power tool manufacturer was held liable because the tools were specifically designed for use with abrasive discs to grind and sand metal--the very purpose that caused the harm.

    Furthermore, where a manufacturer’s product “substantially contributes to the harm,” or a manufacturer substantially participates in creating a harmful combined use of two products, it can be held strictly liable (and/or negligent), unless it warns about the dangers of the combined use. In DeLeon v. Commercial Manufacturing & Supply Co., (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d 336, 340 [195 Cal.Rptr.867), also cited in both O’Neil and Sanchez, plaintiff was injured while cleaning a shaker bin that was specifically designed to be located near a rotating line shaft. The plaintiff’s injury did not result from any intrinsic defect in the shaker bin or the line shaft, but rather, in the dangerous proximity of these two products. The court held that the bin manufacturer was liable due to the fact that it “contributed to this dangerous condition because it designed the bin specifically for use in the particular site where it was located.”

    Even the plaintiff’s expert in Sanchez admitted that, even though the two products were compatible, the saw blade was not intended to be used with this grinder. Consequently, the Sanchez Court held that Hitachi had no duty to warn, design its grinder to prevent use with a saw blade, nor to include a “kickback prevention” feature. The Court concluded that manufacturers are not required to design products to avoid harm from all third-party products, unless those products are intended by the manufacturer to be used with the product for the very activity that caused the injury.

    Sanchez confirmed that strict liability is not absolute liability, and that a manufacturer does not guarantee safety merely because its product can be used with other products. This is especially true, as in Sanchez, when instructions specifically warn against combined use of third-party products, accessories, components and replacement parts.