Sunday, March 3, 2013

Electric Door Malfunctions, Knocks Giant Eagle Customer Down Fracturing Her Hip

A Pittsburgh Giant Eagle was the site of a premises liability and product liability lawsuit due to a malfunctioning electric door filed in Allegheny County.  The plaintiff in this Pittsburgh premises liability suit was well-represented by Pittsburgh personal injury attorney Greg Evashavik of Evashavik, DiLucente and TelowGiant Eagle was not the only defendant in this case.  Read about other outcomes of lawsuits filed against Giant Eagle elsewhere on this blog and at Slip on Soda in Giant Eagle.

This  premises and products liability action also included the door manufacturer, Stanley electric door company, which installed and maintained the door. Giant Eagle was sued because they were responsible for the maintenance of the door since it was on their property.

The female plaintiff, age 86, claimed that the door was defectively designed in that it contained only one holding beam sensor. The plaintiff also contended that Stanley and Giant Eagle failed to adequately maintain the door.

The plaintiff alleged that she was struck by the door while exiting the supermarket and knocked to the ground, sustaining a fractured hip. Giant Eagle settled before trial for $ 65,000. The defendant manufacturer and maintenance company argued that the supermarket failed to call it for maintenance when the door malfunctioned. The plaintiff testified that she was exiting the defendant supermarket when an electric door struck her in the right shoulder, knocking her to the ground.

The plaintiff's family physician testified that the plaintiff sustained a fractured hip in the fall, requiring a two-week hospitalization and six weeks of physical therapy. The plaintiff's expert engineer testified that the electric door was defectively designed in that it had only one holding sensor to keep the door open, which was located at knee level. The door should have included a second holding sensor at shoulder level, in case the lower beam went between a person's legs or malfunctioned, according to this expert. The defendant manufacturer had an improved sensor device available, according to evidence presented, and the plaintiff argued that the more advanced system should have been installed on the door in question. The jury was charged on the malfunction theory.

The defendant manufacturer's in-house expert testified that the door in question was safe and that one holding beam was sufficient to detect persons in the door threshold. The defendants' introduced evidence that employees of the supermarket did not follow recommended daily safety checklist procedures to check the holding sensor. The defendant maintenance company argued that the supermarket was required to call for maintenance in the event of a door malfunction and that no maintenance call had been received.

Evidence also showed that there had been a previous accident involving the door approximately six months before the plaintiff's accident. The defendant's orthopedic surgeon testified that the plaintiff had recovered from her injury and could resume independent activities to a large extent.

The jury found that the door was not defective. It then found the defendant maintenance company 50% negligent and the settling supermarket 50% negligent. The plaintiff was awarded a gross verdict of $ 90,000 which was reduced by 50% by virtue of the supermarket's settlement.

While this was a solid outcome for the plaintiff.  I have to say that I am surprised that the jury did not find any responsibility on the part of the door maker under the malfunction theory.  With the prior incident and the fact that a safer design existed at the time of the injury, it is hard to imagine that the door maker did not have any culpability.  Furthermore, attorney Evashavik was able to get the court to instruct the jury on a "malfunction theory".

Malfunction theory in products liability is essentially as follows:

1.  To make out a prima facie case under the malfunction theory where a product has performed successfully in the years leading up to the alleged "malfunction," a plaintiff must adduce some evidence, direct or circumstantial, to explain how the product could function properly and yet still be defective at the time of deliery.

2.  In the absence of such evidence, a plaintiff cannot meet the required element of a strict liability claim that the product was defective when it left the manufacturer's control, and the defendant manufacturer is entitled to entry of judgment as a matter of law.

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