• Seller/Servicer of Crane Not Liable for Longshoreman's Death
  • November 22, 2010 | Author: Ashley N. Sybesma
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Fort Lauderdale Office
  • Plaintiffs’ decedent was run over and killed by a mobile crane. Plaintiffs brought a products liability claim against defendant seller, which had sold the crane to a settling defendant and entered into a service agreement to keep it in good repair, but did not design or manufacture the crane.

    The decedent had placed a folding chair in front of the crane while it was in operation and its wheel assemblies were off the ground, lifted up by the crane’s outriggers. After the crane completed its loading operations, it was readied for travel. The process of transitioning the crane from loading to travel involved the activation of revolving yellow warning lights, two warning bells, and an “all-clear” alert announced over the crane’s public address system. The purpose of each of these measures was to alert those located on the dock that the crane was ready to move. The process preceding the machine’s travel was captured on surveillance and lasted for approximately 90 seconds before the crane began to move. The decedent remained in her folding chair throughout the process, either at rest or asleep, and was subsequently crushed to death when the crane moved forward and the wheel assembly she was sitting in front of ran over her.

    Plaintiffs alleged that: (1) the crane was defective in its design because it did not include lights and alerting devices underneath its chassis; (2) defendant should have retrofitted the crane with lights, horns, warning signs and the like; (3) a warning should have been provided with the crane, instructing persons not to go under it at any time; and (4) the warnings on the crane were inadequate because they were not “better placed.” The seller moved for summary judgment, and the trial court ruled that, under a theory of negligence, the seller had neither a duty concerning the crane’s design and manufacture, nor a duty to retrofit the crane with additional safety devices after the sale. However, the trial court denied the portion of motion for summary judgment regarding the seller’s duty to warn. At trial, the jury found that the seller was negligent and that such negligence was a contributing factor in the death of decedent. The jury also found, however, that the crane was not defective when it left the seller’s possession, or alternatively, that any defect was not a contributing factor in the death of the decedent.

    On appeal, the court found that each of the bases upon which the seller might have been held liable had been rejected. The primary duty and responsibility of a seller and servicer of equipment such as the seller in this case is ordinarily found in the claim that, at the time of the sale, the equipment contained a defect that rendered it unreasonably dangerous to persons in the vicinity of the crane. See West v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 336 So. 2d 80 (Fla. 1976); American Aerial Lift, Inc. v. Perez, 629 So. 2d 169 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993). Because the jury found that the crane was not defective at the time of the sale, the trial court’s holding that the seller was negligent required reversal.

    The appellate court further held that plaintiffs’ alternative argument that there was an alleged breach of the seller’s obligation to appropriately service the crane after its sale was also not viable. The fact that there was some evidence that two years after the sale one of the horns or other warning devices was not operating properly was not enough to give rise to liability absent evidence indicating that the failure had previously occurred or that the seller was on notice of such impropriety such that it was negligent in failing to repair it. Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. v. Medina, 719 So. 2d 312 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998); Advance Chem. Co. v. Harter, 478 So. 2d 444, 447 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985); Williams v. Joseph L. Rozier Machinery, Co., 135 So. 2d 763, 765 (Fla. 2d DCA 1962).

    Finally, the appellate court held that any duty to warn was placed either on the allegedly negligent operator of the crane, who was the employee of another defendant, or on the owner of the property on which the decedent was an invitee or licensee, which was still another defendant. See Foley v. Hialeah Race Course, Inc., 53 So. 2d 771 (Fla. 1951); Food Fair, Inc. v. Gold, 464 So. 2d 1228 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985); Schatz v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 128 So. 2d 901 (Fla. 1st DCA 1961).

    Liebherr-America, Inc. v. McCollum, 43 So. 3d 65 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010)