Illinois Product Defect Case Reversed For Injured; Malen v. MTD Products, Inc.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has reversed a federal judge’s dismissal of a Illinois product defect case. Donald Malen slipped while getting off his reconditioned riding lawn mower injuring his foot by the rotating blades of the mower. He and his wife filed a lawsuit alleging that the manufacturer, MTD Products, Inc. and the seller of the product, Home Depot USA, Inc. were responsible for the injury. The case,
Malen v, MTD Products, Inc. and Home Depot USA, Inc., No. 08-3855 (Nov. 19, 2010)., was originally filed the Circuit Court of Cook County, but was removed to federal court because of diversity of citizenship of the parties.

Before the plaintiff’s injury, he had been using riding mowers for more than 40 years. In 2001 Mr. Malen purchased a Yard-Man riding mower at Home Depot that was manufactured by MTD in 1998. The mower was advertised as a reconditioned model, with a full manufacturer’s warranty.

The mower was designed with a safety interlock system. One component of the safety system was the “operator presence control”, which would shut off the engine if the operator rose from the seat without first disengaging the cutting blade and setting the parking brake.

The mower also came equipped with a device that cut off the blades movement if the mower were put in reverse gear.

Plaintiff acknowledged that before the incident he had read and understood the admonishments found in the instruction manual and that over three years he had operated the mower 30-50 times without a problem. But in 2004, while Malen was mulching leaves with the mower, the right front tire became wedged over a curb. As he rose from the seat and stepped off the mower, his left foot slipped under the cutting deck where it was struck by the cutting blade.

In the plaintiffs’ complaint it was alleged that defendants were liable for Malen’s injuries under common-law for strict product liability and negligence. It was claimed that the mower was negligently manufactured and unreasonably dangerous because its operator presence device wasn’t connected and therefore was inoperable.

It was further alleged that the mower was negligently designed because MTD had shunned a “fail safe” system that would have made the cutting blade unusable even with the operator presence control being connected.

On a motion for summary, the federal court agreed with the defendants that the plaintiff was the sole proximate cause of his injuries, dismissing the case. The court found that the evidence showed that Malen had driven the mower off a curb, was aware of and understood the warning labels on the mower and ignored those labels by dismounting the mower with the cutting deck raised, the engine running and the cutting blade engaged.

On appeal, the federal judge’s decision was reversed saying that a reasonable jury could find that the mower was both defective and the proximate cause of the injury. The appeals court said that a jury could find taht a riding lawn mower is defective if the machine lacks an operator presence control to stop the blade if the operator loses control or disembarks with the blade engaged. Also, plaintiffs’ expert witness testified that there were no scratches on the contacts where the wiring should have been connected at the factory, a fact that led the expert to conclude that the system was never connected before it came into Malen’s hands. That product defect could make the mower unreasonably dangerous.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling complex product defect cases for over 35 years in and around Cook County and Chicago, including Calumet City, Oak Park, Elmhurst, Hillside and Vernon Hills, Illinois. Consultations are free.