Hoover v. New Holland N. Am., Inc. – Post-Sale Modification Defense Not Absolute

Anytime a product causes harm to someone through its use, questions arise as to whether there was an inherent flaw or manufacturing defect in the design that is to blame.

OurCharlotte product liability lawyers know a common defense in these cases is that of post-sale modification. That is, the defendants allege product was somehow altered in a way that was not intended by the manufacturer. Therefore, the product may have been unsafe, but the maker is absolved of liability.

But as the New York Court of Appeals ruled recently in Hoover v. New Holland N. Am., Inc., this defense is not absolute. Manufacturers do have a responsibility to anticipate potential modifications and misuse, and guard against those when they may pose a danger.

The Hoover case involves a horrific accident in which a 16-year-old girl’s right arm was severed as she aided her stepfather in his use of a post hole digger, which was mounted to a tractor. The device was manufactured by New Holland, and it was owned by the victim’s neighbor.

The owner of the device had admitted that he removed the safety plate after it had become worn and beat up over the course of four years of use. The $40 part was never replaced, he said, because he believed it would only get “bent up, broke up and tore off again.”

The owner also conceded that he routinely allowed the digger to go deeper into the soil than what the owner’s manual recommended, which had likely contributed to the wear on the safety plate.

On the day the accident occurred, the girl’s stepfather was using the device in his backyard, and the victim was helping by ensuring the device was straight before it would bear down into the ground. At one point, however, the girl’s coat got snagged into the rotating driveline. She was dragged down into the device, and her arm was torn off at the elbow.

All parties would later agree that had the $40 safety plate been in place, the accident could have been prevented. The defendant manufacturer argued that it could not be responsible for danger that occurred when its product was altered after it was sold.

The appeals court determined otherwise. In a 6-1 ruling that affirmed a lower court’s finding, the justices reasoned that while a manufacturer doesn’t have to design a product that is impossible to be misused or have safety features that absolutely can’t be circumvented, “It must still use ‘reasonable care’ in designing a product that is reasonably safe for all of its intended uses and foreseeable misuses.”

There is another legal theory that the single dissenting justice noted, which is that of substantial modification. Under strict product liability, this rule holds that a manufacturer would be relieved of liability if a third party modification of the product rendered it unsafe – unless the modification was foreseeable.

Here, the majority of justices found that removal of the safety guard was a potentially foreseeable misuse, and that manufacturers had a responsibility to design the product with this in mind.

The plaintiff was awarded $8.8 million in damages.

Contact our South Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hoover v. New Holland N. Am., Inc., April 1, 2014, New York Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Buechel v. United States – Prison Negligence Results in Lawsuit, March 31, 2014, Charlotte Product Liability Lawyer Blog

Contact Information