Belec v. Hayssen Mfg. Co.

Decision Date06 March 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-2142,96-2142
Citation105 F.3d 406
PartiesProd.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,848 Dennis BELEC, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. HAYSSEN MANUFACTURING COMPANY, Defendant/Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Richard R. Kordenbrock, argued, St. Louis, MO, for plaintiff/appellant.

James P. Lemonds, argued, St. Louis, MO, for defendant/appellee.

Before WOLLMAN, BRIGHT, and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.

MURPHY, Circuit Judge.

This case arises from an injury Dennis Belec suffered at work while operating a plastic blow molding machine. Belec sued the manufacturer of the machine, Hayssen Manufacturing Company, for strict liability and negligence, and two co-employees for negligently modifying the machine. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and Belec now appeals the dismissal of his failure to warn claim against Hayssen. We reverse.

Belec injured both of his hands when they were caught in a plastics blow molding machine. The machine was manufactured by Hayssen and sold to Belec's employer, Semco Plastics. As sold, the machine operated on either automatic or manual cycle, but automatic cycle was its production mode. When run on automatic cycle, the operator had to change positions to produce each plastic item. The operator started the production cycle by pushing a button and then had to move to remove the item, then return to the original position to start the process for the next piece. This took time, and the constant starting and stopping of the machine caused Semco to replace the motor twice.

Hayssen offered a separate retrofit kit permitting the machine to operate on semi-automatic cycle, but Semco employees arranged to modify the machine themselves so that it could be run on semiautomatic cycle, permitting the operator to remain in one position. Belec was injured while removing a plastic piggy bank from the modified machine. The machine had begun to operate while his hands were still inside, causing burns and fractures that resulted in the amputation of fingers on his left hand.

Belec sued Hayssen under Missouri law for strict liability for design defect and failure to warn, and for failure to use ordinary care in the manufacture and design of the product and negligent failure to warn. Belec also sued the co-employees responsible for modifying the machine, alleging that they were negligent. Before the district court ruled on the summary judgment motions, Belec conceded his negligence and strict liability for design defect claims against Hayssen.

The district court granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment. It concluded that Belec's injuries had been caused solely by Semco's modifications to the machine so Hayssen could not be liable. Since the co-employees were acting in furtherance of Semco's nondelegable duty to provide a safe working environment, the Missouri Workers' Compensation Law, Mo.Rev.Stat. §§ 287.010--811 (1993), barred legal action against them. 1

In Missouri, a manufacturer can be held strictly liable for failure to warn of the dangers of a product even if there is no defect in its design. Sutherland v. Elpower Corp., 923 F.2d 1285, 1288 (8th Cir.1991); Nesselrode v. Executive Beechcraft, Inc., 707 S.W.2d 371, 382 (Mo.1986) (en banc). A manufacturer is not strictly liable for failing to warn of dangers caused by every possible use of a product. See Nesselrode, 707 S.W.2d at 375 (noting that a manufacturer is not an insurer for all accidents caused by its product). Where a product would be used in a reasonably foreseeable manner, however, the manufacturer can be strictly liable if it does not provide an adequate warning of the danger of the product. See Sutherland, 923 F.2d at 1289 (concluding that a manufacturer can be strictly liable for failing to warn about reasonably foreseeable unintended use of a modified product); Nesselrode, 707 S.W.2d at 380-381 (stating that strict liability applies to reasonably anticipated use and misuse of a product).

In opposing the motion for summary judgment, Belec offered the affidavit of an expert witness, Keith Vidal. The affidavit contained Vidal's opinion that the machine was unreasonably dangerous as sold because it did not contain a warning about modifying the machine to run on semi-automatic cycle or of the danger posed by the machine when operated on semi-automatic cycle without appropriate safeguards. The affidavit states it was reasonably foreseeable the machine would be used in semi-automatic cycle because Hayssen itself offered a kit to enable it to be modified to operate that way. Vidal's affidavit incorporated his report which was based in part on a review of documents produced by Hayssen that contained facts supporting his conclusion that the use in semi-automatic cycle was reasonably foreseeable.

Hayssen argues that Vidal's affidavit contains only legal conclusions and contradicts his earlier deposition testimony. Hayssen contends that Vidal testified at his deposition that the machine as designed, manufactured, and shipped was reasonably operationally safe, and...

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    ...summary judgment, we keep in mind that the facts are to be considered in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs. Belec v. Hayssen Mfg. Co., 105 F.3d 406, 408 (8th Cir.1997). Part of that record consists of testimony from five former employees of the Columbia store. They testified that Dil......
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