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Anorve v. Volvo Commercial Financial, LLC

A-4951-02T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

WORKERS COMPENSATION—Where a safety problem is intermittent and easily prevented by an employee following his or her employer’s instructions and where it is not conclusive that the defect would cause an injury, the employer is protected from liability by reason of the workers compensation bar.

An employee was crushed to death by the door of a truck he used for work. The accident was caused by a defect that caused the truck to roll when its gear lever was in the “park” position. The employee had failed to engage the parking brake, a precaution that would have prevented the accident from occurring. Prior to the accident, several other employees had complained about the defect, but a supervisor had test-driven the truck and found no problem. Nonetheless, the supervisor reminded the employees to use the parking brake when they parked the truck.

The employee’s wife sued the employer, truck lessor, and the manufacturer. She subsequently settled with the manufacturer. Her expert witness opined that the truck had not been tampered with or subjected to misuse. His opinion was that a manufacturing defect caused the problem. The expert also claimed that the maintenance garage should have discovered the problem during the routine maintenance visits. He did not attribute fault to either the employer or the truck lessor. The lessor leased the truck to the employer through the maintenance garage, which had physical possession of the truck prior to leasing it to the employer. The truck, which was less than a year old, had been taken to the garage for routine maintenance several times, including one visit four months before the accident.

The lower court held that the Workers Compensation Act barred the suit against the employer. It found the employer had committed no intentional wrong. The employer did not alter the truck or conceal a defect from its employees. The employer did not know that the defect was substantially certain to cause death or serious injury to its employees. The wife also failed to prove that the employer refrained from having the truck repaired in order to increase its profits. In addition, the lessor was absolved of liability under the “product seller” exception to the Product Liability Act, because it never exercised control over the truck.

On appeal, the Appellate Division held that no reasonable jury could conclude that it was substantially certain that the defective transmission would cause injury. It was undisputed that the problem was intermittent, and that anyone using the truck could completely avoid the hazard by using the parking brake. The employer neither removed a safety device nor tampered with the truck’s safety equipment to increase profits. It did not intentionally mislead its workers or avoid fixing a known hazard by concealing it. The Court pointed out that the employees were aware of the problem and they knew how to keep the truck from rolling. In addition, the Court noted that a supervisor tested the truck but was unable to replicate the problem. Therefore, the defect was not obvious, but rather latent, in that it occurred sometimes, but not consistently.

The Court also agreed with the lower court that there was no basis for a claim against the lessor. The purpose behind the Products Liability Act is to reduce the litigation cost borne by innocent retailers in product liability actions where they may have nothing to do with the product defect, but are sued in addition to the product manufacturers. Such retailers typically are named in suits in attempts to find deep pockets. The Court pointed out that the wife settled with the truck manufacturer, which her expert identified as being responsible for the accident. There was no evidence that the lessor was anything more than a product seller that never had physical possession of the truck and bore no legal responsibility for the accident. Therefore, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, granting the employer and lessor’s motions for summary judgment.

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