Allen v. Chance Mfg. Co., Inc.

Decision Date10 July 1986
Citation398 Mass. 32,494 N.E.2d 1324
Parties, 1 UCC Rep.Serv.2d 1124, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 11,194 Paul H. ALLEN v. CHANCE MANUFACTURING COMPANY, INC.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Charles Kindregan, Boston, for plaintiff.

Joel F. Pierce (Mark D. Cahill, Boston, with him) for defendant.


WILKINS, Justice.

A judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has certified a question to this court following a jury verdict for the plaintiff on a warranty count in a personal injury action. See S.J.C. Rule 1:03, as amended, 382 Mass. 700 (1981). The judge states that the answer to the question is important in passing on the defendant's motion for a new trial. In support of its motion the defendant asserted that the judge erred in not instructing the jury that circumstances under which the plaintiff could have been found to have used the defendant's product would have barred his right to recover for breach of warranty.

We quote from the order of certification in which the judge has set forth the facts which he states "are relevant to the question certified and set out fully the nature of the controversy in which the question arises." See S.J.C. Rule 1:03, § 3(2).

"On July 16, 1978, the plaintiff was dismantling an amusement ride known as the 'Sky Diver', in the course of his employment with Dean & Flynn Fiesta Shows. While his co-workers lifted the ride's motor, the plaintiff attempted to drive an assembly pin with a hammer through the motor's mounting holes. While he was doing so, the assembly pin's head fragmented. Pieces of metal flew into the plaintiff's eyes, and caused him injury. The assembly pin, hammer and all other components of the 'Sky Diver' were designed, manufactured and marketed by the defendant.

"At trial, the plaintiff introduced into evidence a manual distributed by the defendant to prospective customers. This manual pictured a man hammering the same type of pin that fragmented into the plaintiff's eyes. The pictured man was not wearing safety goggles. For its part, the defendant introduced evidence that safety goggles were available to the plaintiff through his employer and that the plaintiff had previously been struck in the arms by pin fragments that chipped off during his hammering."

The judge certified this question: "In a personal injury action based on breach of an implied warranty of merchantability, does the misuse defense apply to foreseeable uses of the product as well as to unforeseeable uses?" Citing Back v. Wickes Corp., 375 Mass. 633, 378 N.E.2d 964 (1978), and Correia v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 388 Mass. 342, 446 N.E.2d 1033 (1983), the judge stated in his order that "[t]he applicability of the misuse defense to foreseeable uses appears unsettled."

We are uncertain what the judge meant by his reference to the "misuse defense." The word "defense" suggests a matter of affirmative proof by which, if successful, a defendant could prevent liability. We are not aware, however, that we have used the words "misuse defense" in connection with warranty claims. We hope that a discussion of the circumstances under which a plaintiff's conduct will bar his right to recover for breach of warranty will assist the judge in deciding the defendant's motion for a new trial. In the process we shall describe the significance of foreseeability to proof of a warranty claim.

A warranty of merchantability that goods "are fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used" is implied in a contract for their sale. G.L. c. 106, § 2-314(2)(c) (1984 ed.). The implied warranty of fitness includes uses which are reasonably foreseeable but does not include unforeseeable misuses of a product. Back v. Wickes Corp., supra, 375 Mass. at 640, 378 N.E.2d 964. "[A] manufacturer must anticipate the environment in which its product will be used, and it must design against the reasonably foreseeable risks attending the product's use in that setting." Id. at 640-641, 378 N.E.2d 964. Thus, to prove his case a plaintiff asserting a personal injury claim based on a breach of an implied warranty of merchantability must prove that at the time of his injury he was using the product in a manner that the defendant seller, manufacturer, or distributor reasonably could have foreseen. See Correia v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., supra, 388 Mass. at 357 n. 15, 446 N.E.2d 1033.

Quite apart from this element of a plaintiff's claim is a defendant's affirmative defense that the plaintiff is barred from recovery because (1) he violated a duty to act reasonably with respect to a product he knew to be defective and dangerous and (2) that conduct was a cause of the injury. Id. at 355-356 & n. 12, 446 N.E.2d 1033. A defendant making such a claim must prove that the plaintiff knew of the product's defect and its danger, that he proceeded voluntarily and unreasonably to use the product and that, as a result, he was injured. Id. at 355-357, 446 N.E.2d 1033. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A, comment n (1965). This defense differs from the traditional doctrine of assumption of the risk because it combines a subjective element, the plaintiff's actual knowledge and appreciation of the risk, with an objective standard, the reasonableness of his conduct in the face of the known danger. See Zahrte v. Sturm, Ruger & Co., 661 P.2d 17, 18-19 (Mont.1983); Johnson v. Clark Equip. Co., 274 Or. 403, 410 n. 5, 547 P.2d 132 (1976). See also Keeton, Assumption of Products Risks, 19 Sw.L.J. 61, 67-69 (1965). Compare Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A, comment n (plaintiff "proceeds unreasonably to make use of the product" ) with id. §§ 496C, 496E (plaintiff need only encounter known risk voluntarily). This defense is significant, of course, only when there has been a foreseeable use of the defendant's product which, with other elements, establishes liability for breach of warranty. 1 See Hughes v. Magic Chef, Inc., 288 N.W.2d 542, 545 (Iowa 1980).

If by "misuse defense" the judge meant the defense we have just described, the defendant's ability to foresee the plaintiff's voluntary, knowing, and unreasonable misuse of the product is irrelevant under our cases....

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