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Iliades v. Dieffenbacher North America Inc

Supreme Court of Michigan

May 23, 2018

STEVEN T. ILIADES and JANE ILIADES, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
DIEFFENBACHER NORTH AMERICA INC., Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued on application for leave to appeal November 7, 2017.

          Justices: Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano, Richard H. Bernstein, Kurtis T. Wilder, Elizabeth T. Clement, Stephen J. Markman Chief Justice.

         Syllabus

         Steven Iliades (plaintiff) and Jane Iliades brought a products-liability action in the Oakland Circuit Court against Dieffenbacher North America Inc., alleging negligence, gross negligence, and breach of warranty after plaintiff was injured by a rubber molding press manufactured by defendant. The press was equipped with a presence-sensing device called a "light curtain" that stops the press when beams of light in front of the press opening are interrupted. Once the light curtain was no longer interrupted, the press would resume its cycle automatically. Plaintiff was injured when he attempted to retrieve parts that had fallen to the floor inside the press by reaching behind the light curtain without first placing the press into manual mode. Because of plaintiff's position behind the light curtain, the light curtain was not interrupted, the press resumed its automatic operation, and plaintiff was trapped between the two plates of the press. The court, Martha D. Anderson, J., granted summary disposition to defendant, ruling that plaintiff had misused the press given the evidence that he had been trained not to reach into the press while it was in automatic mode, knew how to place the press into manual mode, knew that the light curtain was not meant to be used as an emergency stop switch, and knew that the press would automatically begin its cycle if the light curtain was no longer interrupted. The court further ruled that plaintiff's misuse was not reasonably foreseeable because plaintiff had not presented any evidence that defendant could have foreseen that a trained press operator would crawl beyond a light curtain and partially inside a press to retrieve a part without first disengaging the press. The Court of Appeals, Ronayne Krause, P.J., and Stephens, J. (Jansen, J., dissenting), reversed and remanded in an unpublished per curiam opinion issued July 19, 2016 (Docket No. 324726), holding that, regardless of whether plaintiff had misused the press, defendant could be held liable because plaintiff's conduct was reasonably foreseeable. Defendant applied for leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, which ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other peremptory action. 500 Mich. 965 (2017).

         In a unanimous opinion by Justice Zahra, the Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, held:

         Defendant would be liable under MCL 600.2947(2) for injuries sustained by plaintiff if plaintiff's conduct constituted misuse of the press under MCL 600.2945(e) and that misuse was reasonably foreseeable. Whether the misuse was reasonably foreseeable depends on whether defendant knew or should have known of the misuse, not on whether plaintiff was grossly negligent in operating the press. Because the majority of the Court of Appeals did not decide whether and how plaintiff misused the press, and because it did not apply the common-law meaning of reasonable foreseeability, the Court of Appeals judgment was reversed and the case was remanded to that Court to reconsider the trial court's grant of summary disposition in favor of defendant under the standards articulated in this opinion.

         1. MCL 600.2947(2) provides that a manufacturer or seller is not liable in a products-liability action for harm caused by misuse of a product unless the misuse was reasonably foreseeable. This provision further states that whether there was misuse and whether that misuse was reasonably foreseeable are both legal issues to be resolved by the court. Thus, the plain language of MCL 600.2947(2) clearly sets forth a two-part test for manufacturer liability pertaining to reasonably foreseeable product misuse: in order for a manufacturer to be liable for the misuse of its product, a court must first decide whether there was misuse of the product, and, if so, the court must then decide whether the particular misuse was reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer.

         2. MCL 600.2945(e) defines "misuse" as "use of a product in a materially different manner than the product's intended use." Under this provision, "misuse" includes (1) uses inconsistent with the specifications and standards applicable to the product, (2) 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 (3) uses other than those for which the product would be considered suitable by a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances.

         3. The phrase "reasonably foreseeable" is not defined under the statute, but the Legislature is presumed to have adopted the common-law definition of that phrase when it enacted MCL 600.2947(2). Under Michigan common law, foreseeability depends on whether a reasonable person could anticipate that a given event might occur under certain conditions. When dealing with the foreseeability of a product's misuse, the crucial inquiry is whether, at the time the product was manufactured, the manufacturer was aware, or should have been aware, of that misuse. Whether a manufacturer should have known of a particular misuse may depend on whether that misuse was a common practice, or whether foreseeability was inherent in the product.

         4. The Court of Appeals majority erred by failing to squarely address whether plaintiff's conduct constituted misuse of the press under MCL 600.2945(e), which affected its reasonable-foreseeability analysis. For instance, the majority improperly framed the issue as whether it was reasonably foreseeable that press operators at plaintiff's place of employment would rely on the light curtains as exclusive safety devices. This overly broad account of misuse is inconsistent with the wording of MCL 600.2947(2), which specifically asks whether "the misuse" of the product was reasonably foreseeable. In other words, the question for purposes of foreseeability is whether defendant knew or should have known of plaintiff's particular misuse. Without deciding whether and how plaintiff had misused the press, the majority could not properly assess whether that misuse was reasonably foreseeable.

         5. The Court of Appeals erred by importing the standard applicable to criminal gross negligence into its interpretation of MCL 600.2947(2). Had the Legislature intended to use this criminal standard for reasonable foreseeability in civil products-liability cases, as opposed to the common-law definition, the Legislature would have done so. Because the Legislature has not plainly shown a contrary intent, the common-law meaning of "reasonably foreseeable" must apply for purposes of MCL 600.2947(2).

         Court of Appeals judgment reversed; case remanded to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings.

         Justice Clement took no part in the decision of this case.

          BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH (except Clement, J.)

          OPINION

          ZAHRA, J.

         This products-liability action presents a question of first impression in regard to the proper interpretation of MCL 600.2947(2).[1] That provision provides that a manufacturer is not liable for harm caused by the misuse of a product unless that misuse was reasonably foreseeable.

         In this case, plaintiff Steven Iliades sustained serious injuries after he reached inside a 500-ton press machine to retrieve molded rubber parts from the floor and became trapped when the press started its automatic cycle.[2] Iliades places fault with defendant Dieffenbacher North America Inc., the manufacturer of the press. If Iliades's conduct constituted misuse of the press, however, Dieffenbacher would only be liable if that particular misuse was reasonably foreseeable by Dieffenbacher.

         In an unpublished, split decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that, regardless of whether Iliades misused the press, Dieffenbacher can be held liable for the harm sustained by Iliades because his conduct was reasonably foreseeable under a criminal gross-negligence standard. The Court of Appeals erred by applying that standard in this context.

         The Legislature set forth a clear two-part test in MCL 600.2947(2) for manufacturer liability arising from product misuse. First, a court must decide whether there was misuse of the product. Second, if there was misuse, a court must decide whether that particular misuse was reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer. Although the Legislature defined "misuse" in MCL 600.2945(e), it did not provide a definition for "reasonably foreseeable." Nevertheless, under longstanding principles of statutory construction, the phrase "reasonably foreseeable" must be construed in accordance with its common-law meaning. And under Michigan common law, foreseeability depends on whether a reasonable person could anticipate that a given event might occur under certain conditions. When dealing with the foreseeability of a product's misuse in particular, the crucial inquiry is whether, at the time the product was manufactured, the manufacturer was aware, or should have been aware, of that misuse.

         Because the majority of the Court of Appeals did not decide whether and how Iliades misused the press, and because it improperly used a criminal gross-negligence standard to determine whether Iliades's misuse was reasonably foreseeable instead of the common-law meaning of that phrase, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to that Court to reconsider whether the trial court's grant of summary disposition in favor of Dieffenbacher was proper under the standards articulated in this opinion.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Flexible Products Company supplies molded rubber parts for the automotive industry. As of June 10, 2011, Iliades had more than a year of experience working on presses at Flexible Products. Although he usually worked on Press Number 1, that press was temporarily inoperable that day, so Iliades was operating Press Number 25, a 500-ton vertical rubber molding press machine manufactured by Dieffenbacher. The press creates injection-molded rubber parts by pressing together two large plates called "platens, " which hold interchangeable molds, and then injecting rubber into the molds. Each ...


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