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Adams v. Mestek Machinery, Inc

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 9, 2017

ROBERT ADAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
MESTEK MACHINERY, INC., Defendant.

          DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 19) AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT (DKT. 24)

          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Mestek Machinery, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 19) and Plaintiff Robert Adams's motion to amend complaint (Dkt. 24). The issues have been fully briefed and a hearing was held on September 29, 2017. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies both motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Robert Adams worked for AutoSteel, a company that specializes in cutting down steel coils for automotive companies, from 1993 until he was injured on the job on October 9, 2014. Pl. Dep., Ex. A to Def. Mot., at 14 (Dkt. 19-1). Adams's primary responsibility while working at AutoSteel was to assist in the operation of the Slear, the machine through which steel coils would be fed and cut down to the requested specifications. Id. at 48. Specifically, Adams was responsible for cleaning the machine's rollers. Id. In order to clean the rollers, Adams had to physically enter the machine two to three times per day. Id. at 83.

         Prior to May 2013, AutoSteel used a version of the Slear (“Slear I”) that Adams described as “skeleton in form, ” meaning that the operator of the machine had an unobstructed view of the inside of the machine. Pl. Resp. at 2. According to Adams, this ensured that the operator would know not to begin operating the machine until his coworker had finished cleaning the machine rolls. However, in May 2013, AutoSteel purchased a new Slear machine (“Slear II”) from Defendant Mestek Machinery. The Slear II contained two panel doors: a yellow door near the machine's control panel and a blue door near the machine's lower section. Mestek contends that the only proper way to clean the machine's rollers is to enter through the yellow doors. Steve Kreska, Mestek's engineering manager, testified that the yellow door has two purposes: “gaining access to the interior machine for maintenance purposes, and . . . to gain access to the interior of the machine for setting up the . . . slitter knives.” Kreska Dep, Ex. 1 to Def. Mot., at 39 (Dkt. 19-2). Significantly, Kreska testified that the yellow door “is meant to be the only egress for an operator to go in and out of the machine.” Id. at 40. The yellow door is also equipped with an interlock device, which shuts off power to the machine when the door is open.

         Adams contends that the blue doors “made it eminently easier to access the roller than entry into the machine through the yellow door.” Pl. Resp. at 5. Adams contends that the yellow door leads to an area within the machine that, pursuant to OSHA standards, would be defined as a “confined space.” Adams describes the area as “unlit and cramped.” Id. at 2. Further, Adams's expert, Robert Burnham, stated that “[t]he use of this [yellow] door would also require the maintenance person to pass under the slitter blades when coming from this direction.” Burnham Report, Ex. 7 to Pl. Resp., at 4 (Dkt. 27-10).

         On October 9, 2014, Adams and his supervisor, Frank Pearson, were attending to the Slear II machine. After they returned from lunch, Pearson turned off the machine so Adams could enter the machine in order to clean the rollers. Adams Dep. at 89. Adams entered the machine through the blue doors and began to clean. Id. Unlike the hundreds of other times that Adams and Pearson worked on the machine together, Pearson failed to inform Adams that he was starting the machine up again. Id. at 90. When the machine began running, Adams's hand became caught in the rollers. Id. This ultimately caused the loss of two of Adam's fingers and the use of his dominant right hand.

         Adams brought the instant suit, alleging that Mestek defectively designed and manufactured the Slear II. Mestek contends that Adams's entry through the blue door, as opposed to the yellow door, constituted misuse of its machine. Mestek notes that, unlike the blue door, the yellow door is equipped with an interlock device, which prevents the machine from being operated while the door is open. The blue door contains no such safeguard. Mestek also argues that the alleged misuse - entry through the blue door - was not foreseeable. It notes that the blue door was bolted onto the machine, so that users could not access the machine through that door. Adams (or another employee of AutoSteel) unscrewed the bolt sometime after installation in order to gain access to the machine. The blue door also contained a sticker which stated as follows: “Warning, door must be closed while machine is running.” Adams Dep. at 76. Mestek's safety manual also required the use of a “lock out, tag out” device when anyone was operating the Slear II. This device locks off power to the machine, so that only the key used to lock the machine can turn it back on. This is meant to prevent operation of the machine while an individual is conducting maintenance.

         Mestek now moves for summary judgment, arguing that Adams misused the product in a way that was not reasonably foreseeable. Adams moves to amend to assert additional claims for negligent production, breach of express and implied warranties, gross negligence, and failure to warn.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court must grant “summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “In making this determination, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor.” U.S. S.E.C. v. Sierra Brokerage Servs., Inc., 712 F.3d 321, 327 (6th Cir. 2013). The court must determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-252 (1986). “[W]hen a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party ‘must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 250 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). Furthermore, plaintiff “cannot rely on conjecture or conclusory accusations.” Arendale v. City of Memphis, 519 F.3d 587, 605 (6th Cir. 2008).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Mestek argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because Adams misused the Slear II when he entered the machine through the blue panel door, instead of the yellow door. “In Michigan, misuse of a product is an absolute defense for a manufacturer or a seller in a product liability action if the misuse was not reasonably foreseeable to the defendant.” Johnson v. Serv. Tool Co., LLC, No. 2:14-CV-12438, 2015 WL 7760480, at *6 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 30, 2015). This principle is codified in the Michigan Product Liability Act, which states “[a] manufacturer or seller is not liable in a product liability action for harm caused by misuse of a product unless the misuse was reasonably foreseeable.” Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 600.2947(2). The statute states that whether there was misuse and, if so, whether that misuse was reasonably foreseeable, is a legal question to be decided by the Court. Id. The statute defines misuse as follows:

“Misuse” means use of a product in a materially different manner than the product's intended use. Misuse includes uses inconsistent with the specifications and standards applicable to the product, uses contrary to a warning or instruction provided by the manufacturer, seller, or another person possessing knowledge or training regarding the use or maintenance of the product, and uses other than those for which the ...

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