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Iliades v. Dieffenbacher North America, Inc.

Supreme Court of Michigan

October 18, 2019

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

          Oakland CC: 12-129407-NP

          Bridget M. McCormack, Chief Justice, David F. Viviano, Chief Justice Pro Tem Stephen J. Markman Brian K. Zahra Richard H. Bernstein Elizabeth T. Clement Megan K. Cavanagh, Justices

          ORDER

         On order of the Court, the application for leave to appeal the October 16, 2018 judgment of the Court of Appeals is considered, and it is DENIED, because we are not persuaded that the question presented should be reviewed by this Court.

          Zahra, J. (dissenting).

         I respectfully dissent. Plaintiff, Steven Iliades, [1] worked at Flexible Products Company, which creates injection molded plastic parts using large press machines manufactured by defendant, Dieffenbacher North America, Inc. Presses were equipped with presence-sensing devices called light curtains, which were meant to automatically halt operation of a press when a beam of light passing in front of the opening of the press was interrupted (for example, by a person passing through the light). Each press also had two modes of operation: automatic and manual. In automatic mode, a press would continuously cycle without operator input. If a light curtain affixed to a press in automatic mode was interrupted, the press would continue cycling on its own once the interrupting presence was removed. Contrastingly, in manual mode, an operator would control cycling of the press. If a light curtain affixed to a press in manual mode was interrupted, the press would not resume cycling until reset by an operator.

         Flexible Products' presses did not always eject rubber parts, resulting in parts remaining in the press that needed to be removed manually. Flexible Products' employees were instructed to never remove wayward parts that remained in the press without first ensuring that the machine was operating in manual mode. As an extra safety precaution, employees were also instructed to use "parts grabbers" when performing this task.

         Contrary to his training, plaintiff did not use the parts grabber on the day of his injury. In further contravention of his training, plaintiff left the press in automatic mode and climbed partially into Flexible Products' Press Number 25 to remove parts. When plaintiff's positioning placed him entirely behind the attached light curtain, the press, unsurprisingly, resumed cycling and plaintiff sustained serious injuries.

         Plaintiff filed suit alleging negligence, gross negligence, and breach of warranty. Under MCL 600.2947(2), however, "[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. Whether there was misuse of a product and whether misuse was reasonably foreseeable are legal issues to be resolved by the court." Following discovery, defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), claiming that plaintiff's climbing into the press while it was in automatic mode constituted misuse that was not reasonably foreseeable. The trial court agreed with defendant and granted summary disposition.

         In 2016, the Court of Appeals issued a split, unpublished per curiam opinion reversing and remanding for further proceedings.[2] The panel majority declined to expressly determine whether plaintiff's actions constituted misuse, instead holding that summary disposition was inappropriate because plaintiff's conduct was "reasonably foreseeable" under the criminal-law standard for distinguishing between ordinary and gross negligence.[3]

         Defendant applied for leave to appeal in this Court, which reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to that court for further review.[4]Specifically, this Court held that the panel majority erred by failing to decide whether and how plaintiff misused the press and by failing to apply the common-law meaning of the phrase "reasonably foreseeable."[5] Outlining the appropriate standard for assessing reasonable foreseeability in this context, the Court stated:

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. Whether a manufacturer should have known of a particular misuse may depend on whether that misuse was a common practice, or if foreseeability was inherent in the product.[6]

         On remand, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals again reversed the trial court's grant of summary disposition and remanded for further proceedings in an unpublished per curiam opinion.[7] The panel majority, "constrained by the plain and unambiguous language in [MCL 600.2945(e)], "[8] held that plaintiff's failure to comply with operating instructions constituted misuse.[9] Even so, the majority determined-relying on its own notions of "common sense"-that plaintiff's conduct was reasonably foreseeable.[10]

         There is no question that plaintiff's conduct constituted "misuse" as defined by MCL 600.2954(e). But I cannot agree with the panel majority that plaintiff's act of ignoring his training and partially climbing into Press Number 25 while it was set to automatic mode to retrieve parts was "reasonably foreseeable" as contemplated under MCL 600.2947(2) and the common law. As this Court previously stated in these very proceedings, "[w]hether a manufacturer should have known of a particular misuse may depend on whether that misuse was a common practice, or if foreseeability was inherent in the product."[11]

         With regard to common practice: Judge Jansen, the dissenting jurist in the Court of Appeals, correctly noted that the record below did not demonstrate that defendant was ever made aware of accidents like the one involving plaintiff before the initiation of this case.[12] The record disclosed that James Preston, an employee who had operated Press Number 25 in the past, would occasionally disregard his training and bypass the light curtain to retrieve parts from the press. While doing so, the press started its automatic cycle, apparently because Preston was "so skinny" that he was able to stand entirely behind the light curtain such that no part of his body interrupted the beam. Regardless, Preston did not bring this incident to anyone's (let alone defendant's) attention. Thus, even when viewing this evidence in the light most ...


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