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ARTICLE ID 30094

- PRODUCTS LIABILITY - NEGLIGENCE/BREACH OF WARRANTY - DESIGN DEFECT/FAILURE TO WARN - FORK-LIFT TRUCK - WRONGFUL DEATH.

U.S. District Court, Boston, Mass.

This death action arose out of a workplace accident involving the 28-year-old decedent who, at the time, was operating a fork-lift truck manufactured and sold by the defendant Baker Material Handling Corporation. The plaintiffs contended that the subject fork-lift truck was defectively designed and equipped with inadequate warnings, allegedly resulting in the accident which caused the decedent’s death.

The subject accident occurred on January 5, ________, while the decedent was working in the course of his employment with Parkers Warehouse and Distributing Co., Inc./Parkers Express, Inc.("Parkers") at its warehouse facility in Avon, Massachusetts.

The decedent was operating a Baker fork-lift truck that had been manufactured and sold to Parkers in ________.

The Baker fork-lift truck was what is known as a "narrow-aisle reach truck" designed to operate in small warehouse aisles in order to maximize the amount of space that can be used for shelf storage. As part of this design, the operator’s compartment is located at the rear end of the truck, and the operator stands in the compartment while driving the truck.

At the time of the subject accident, the decedent, who worked as a warehouseman for Parkers, was apparently using the Baker truck to retrieve merchandise from storage racks. The truck was unloaded and the decedent was attempting to maneuver it in reverse down an aisle of storage racks. While there were no eyewitnesses to the accident, the reversing truck apparently veered to one side and collided with a storage rack. The decedent was pinned between the truck and a horizontal beam or shelf on the storage rack, suffering the injuries that led to his death.

He was taken from the scene to the hospital and died approximately eight hours later. He was survived by his wife, from whom he was legally separated, and their five-year-old daughter.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Baker reach truck was defectively designed in that it failed to incorporate two vertical posts at the rear of the operator’s compartment. Such posts would have prevented intrusion by a shelf or other horizontal member into the operator’s compartment in the event of a backing-up collision such as occurred in the decedent’s accident. The plaintiffs’ experts testified that such a design was mechanically and economically feasible at the time the accident truck was manufactured and sold.

The plaintiffs offered evidence that a subcommittee of the Industrial Trucking Association, of which Baker was a member, had discussed the risk of intrusion accidents as early as ________, the year the accident truck was sold. The plaintiffs also offered evidence of an allegedly similar accident involving a Baker reach truck that occurred prior to Mr. Chapman’s accident. Finally, the plaintiffs offered evidence that on at least two occasions prior p 7 3 to the decedent’s accident, at the request of a customer, the defendant had provided reach trucks with rear posts. Based largely on this evidence, the plaintiffs argued that the defendant should have notified Parkers and other purchasers of its reach trucks, at some point during the ________’s, that the risk of intrusion accidents had become apparent and that reach trucks utilizing rear posts were available.

The defendant Baker offered evidence that the design of the accident truck complied with all applicable industry standards in effect at the time of its manufacture, and that at that time, no maker of reach trucks sold a model equipped with rear posts as standard equipment. Baker introduced expert testimony that a design incorporating rear posts would pose a number of design and safety disadvantages, including the additional hazard of "shearing" accidents involving posts.

In response to the plaintiffs’ contentions that Baker itself had added rear posts to its reach trucks at the request of a customer, the defendant’s expert opined that if similar posts had been added to the accident truck, they would have rendered the truck unusable in the Parker warehouse. The specifications Parker had given to the defendant at the time of purchase of the accident truck (which specifications were offered into evidence) called for such a narrow tolerance between truck and aisle width that the additional inches resulting from the installation of rear posts on the outside of the truck (as had been done for Baker’s other customer) would have made the truck too wide for Parkers’ aisles, according to the defense expert.

The defendant also offered evidence that other feasible and more practical means could have been implemented by Parkers to prevent or lessen injuries in the event of a backing-up collision such as the decedent’s. Such means included alteration of the height of horizontal shelf members in the warehouse so as to prevent the truck from riding under a rack, and better operator training than was provided to the decedent.

The plaintiffs offered the expert testimony of an economist to support the contention that the lost lifetime income to the decedent’s surviving wife and minor daughter as a result of the decedent’s death totaled $________. On cross-examination, Baker challenged the plaintiff’s expert’s conclusions as failing to take into consideration, among other things, a downward trend in the decedent’s income during the years prior to his accident and the fact that the decedent and his surviving wife had been separated for three years at the time of the accident.

The plaintiffs’ last demand prior to trial was $________. The defendant’s highest offer was $________. In response to special verdict questions, the jury found that Baker had not been negligent in selling the reach truck as designed, had not breached the implied warranty of merchantability, and had not breached a "continuing duty to warn" in failing to apprise Parkers during the ________’s of the risk of intrusion accidents and the availability of a rear-post modification. The plaintiff’s motion for new trial was denied by the Trial Court on September 30, ________.

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