Product Defect Case Not Barred by Assumption of Risk Issue – Stollings v. Ryobi Technologies

An Illinois court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment in Brandon Stollings v. Ryobi Technologies, 2011 WL 211008 (N.D. Ill.). The court disagreed with the defendant manufacturer that the Illinois product defect claim did not satisfy the requirements for strict liability or negligence claims and allowed the product defect case to continue.

Stollings involved claims that the Ryobi Technologies manufactured a table saw that was unreasonably dangerous due to several design defects. The Illinois product liability lawsuit was filed after the plaintiff, Brandon Stollings, lost two fingers while he was maneuvering the table saw. Stollings was cutting a piece of wood when it was kicked back at him by the blade, causing his fingers to push forward into the rotating blade. Stollings’s product liability lawsuit claimed that Ryobi Technologies’s table saw was unreasonable dangerous because its anti-kickback device was attached to the saw’s blade guard instead of being an independent system, it lacked flesh-detection technology, and sawdust tended to accumulate in the blade guards and obstruct the view of the operators.

However, the defense filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss both Stollings’s strict product liability counts and his negligence counts, citing evidence that Stollings had removed the blade guard prior to operating the table saw and that the plaintiff admitted to never reading the safety manual. The defense argued that if the plaintiff failed to utilize the safety features it had included then he was over 50% liable for his own injuries.

The defense motion for summary judgment relied on a implied assumption of risk defense, which applies when a plaintiff voluntarily engages in risky and dangerous activity at the time of the injury. Ryobi’s instruction manual instructed its users never to remove the blade guard. Despite never having read the manual, Stollings admitted to knowing that it was dangerous to remove the blade guard at the time of his table saw accident.

Under Illinois law, there are both primary and secondary implied assumptions of risk (735 ILCS 5/2-1116). A primary implied assumption of risk is when the risks are created by the nature of the activity itself rather than by the defendant’s negligence, e.g., contact sports. A secondary implied assumption of risk is when the risky activity was created by the defendant’s negligence and does not necessarily bar the plaintiff’s right to recover damages, even if the plaintiff voluntarily engages in the risky behavior.

When deciding cases involving secondary implied assumption of risk, the jury must consider the comparative fault of each party, i.e., the degree that both the plaintiff and defendant are responsible for the injury. If the jury finds that the plaintiff is more than 50% responsible for his or her own injury, then the plaintiff is barred from recovery. However, if the jury finds that the plaintiff is less than 50% responsible for his or her own injuries, then he or she may still recover damages for the injury.

In its motion for summary judgment, the defendant attempted to prove that the plaintiff knew that operating the table saw without the blade guard was risky, yet voluntarily engaged in this risky behavior. However, despite this evidence, U.S. District Judge Feinerman denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because implied assumption of risk alone is not enough to completely bar a plaintiff’s recovery of damages. The judge stated, “Illinois holds that a manufacturer cannot avoid liability by warning of a product’s dangers if it is reasonably foreseeable that consumers will ignore the warnings.”
Stollings had removed the blade guard in order to cut freehand, which the plaintiff’s attorneys contended was a common practice and that Ryobi Technologies were aware that operators of its table saw typically elected to remove the blade guards in order to cut freehand. Therefore, if Ryobi was aware that consumers would ignore its warnings and engage in risky behavior, then it was possible that its product was defective. Therefore, at this stage in the discovery process the defendants had yet to demonstrate that the plaintiff would not be able to prove liability and negligence on Ryobi’s part.

Under a strict product liability claim, the plaintiff must prove that his or her injury was caused by the defendant’s product and that the product itself was unreasonably dangerous. Stollings also filed a negligence claim, under which he needed to prove that the construction or design of the product breached a duty of care and was the proximate cause of his injury.

Stollings injury was clearly caused by his operation of the defendant’s table saw. In so far as proving that the product was unreasonably dangerous, Stollings argued that the manufacturer should have known that consumers were likely to remove the blade guard and therefore should not have placed the anti-kickback device on that guard. In addition, the guards themselves were known to become clouded with sawdust very quickly, thereby obscuring the user’s view of the cutting area.

In order for Ryobi to be cleared from liability, the jury would need to find either that the product was not defective, or that Stollings was over 50% responsible for his own injuries. However, the judge did not feel that the evidence was so overwhelmingly in Ryobi’s favor that either of these conclusions were inevitable. The judge felt that given the evidence, a jury could reasonably find that (1) Ryobi was partially at fault for causing the accident, and (2) Stollings’ contributory fault is less than the 50% point for completely barring his design defect claim.

Questions still remain as to whether Ryobi could have reasonably foreseen that Stollings would have removed the blade guard, and if so, then whether the saw’s alleged design defects or Stollings’s behavior itself was the primary cause of his accident. The decision as to both the strict liability claim and negligence claim would be left to a jury to decide.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois product defect cases for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Bensenville, Lisle, Arlington Heights, Riverdale, and North Riverside.

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