Buttelo v. S.A. Woods-Yates American Mach. Co., Inc., WOODS-YATES

Decision Date14 December 1993
Docket NumberNo. 14633-9-II,WOODS-YATES,14633-9-II
Citation864 P.2d 948,72 Wn.App. 397
CourtWashington Court of Appeals
PartiesRick BUTTELO and Kris Buttelo, individually and as the natural parents and guardians of their minor children, to-wit: Brianne Kay Buttelo and Rich Eugene Buttelo, Appellants, v. S.A.AMERICAN MACHINE CO., INC.; Burton Machinery Co.; Paxport Mills, Inc., a Washington corporation; and Schneider & Simpson Sheet Metal & Blower Co., Inc., a Washington corporation, Respondents. Division 2

Rodney B. Ray, Margullis, Luedtke & Ray, Tacoma, for appellants.

Timothy R. Gosselin, Burgess, Fitzer, Leighton & Phillips, Tacoma, for respondents.

JOHN A. PETRICH, Judge Pro Tem. 1

Rick Buttelo's left arm was amputated below the elbow when he was sharpening the rotating planer knives of an industrial woodworking machine that his employer, Western Dry Kilns, Inc. (Western), leased from Paxport Mills, Inc. (Paxport). Buttelo appeals the trial court's dismissal by summary judgment of his products liability and negligence claims against Paxport. We affirm.

Paxport, a lumber mill, and Western, a custom remanufacturer of wood products, are related corporations. Paxport owns the majority of Western's shares; Paxport's majority shareholder and president, Chauncey Griggs, is also one of Western's officers and directors. Although Paxport and Western maintain separate offices and production facilities, the two corporations have overlapping payroll and clerical functions; occasionally, each lends the other the services of its production and maintenance employees. Another significant connection between the two companies is their long-standing lease agreement, under which Western leases machinery and equipment for use in its manufacturing process. The machine that injured Buttelo is subject to this agreement.

The machine that injured Buttelo is a used molder and planer that was built in 1925 by the S.A. Woods-Yates American Machine Company. In January of 1987, Jay Garrison, Western's production superintendent, ordered the used molder from Burton Machinery, an Oregon dealer in used woodworking equipment. Burton Machinery shipped the molder directly to Western's production facility.

When the molder arrived at Western's production facility, Harley Sykes supervised its installation. Sykes also supervised Schneider-Simpson Sheetmetal's installation of the duct work above the molder, which vacuumed sawdust away from the work area. Sykes had been in charge of rearranging Western's production facility to accommodate the molder and several other pieces of equipment since January. Sykes had been on Western's payroll since June of 1986, when Western's production superintendent, Jay Garrison, had hired him on a contract basis to install Western's boiler system and chip bin. Sykes had performed contract work for both corporations at various times over the preceding years.

A few days after the molder was installed, Buttelo was cleaning it for the next day's run when he noticed that one of its blades was nicked. Buttelo started the machine so that he could sharpen the blade. The molder, when shipped to its original owner, had a crank and screw apparatus that allowed the operator to stand back from the machine during the sharpening process. This crank and screw apparatus was missing, which made it necessary for Buttelo to grab the sharpening stone and to manually pull it across the spinning blades. Had this originally furnished apparatus been intact and properly attached to the molder, Buttelo's hand would not have been positioned above the knives during the sharpening operation. During the blade sharpening process, part of the duct work, which was located above the molder and held up by suction, dropped, striking Buttelo's arm and forcing it into the moving blades.

Buttelo named Schneider-Simpson Sheetmetal and Paxport as defendants in an amended complaint after his earlier claims against the manufacturer and the seller of the machine had been dismissed. Schneider-Simpson and Paxport were dismissed on their motions for summary judgment. This appeal is from the trial court's dismissal of Paxport.

In reviewing a summary judgment order, this court makes the same inquiry as the trial court. Touchet Vly. Grain Growers, Inc. v. Opp & Seibold Gen. Constr. Inc., 119 Wash.2d 334, 341, 831 P.2d 724 (1992). This court will affirm the award "if there is no genuine issue of material fact or if reasonable minds could reach only one conclusion on that issue based upon the evidence construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Weatherbee v. Gustafson, 64 Wash.App. 128, 131, 822 P.2d 1257 (1992) (citing Sea-Pac Co. v. United Food & Comm'l Workers Local Union 44, 103 Wash.2d 800, 802, 699 P.2d 217 (1985)). Where, as here, the defendant is the movant, summary judgment of dismissal is appropriate if the defendant meets the initial burden of showing an absence of an issue of material fact and the plaintiff fails to produce evidence sufficient to establish the existence of each essential element of his claim. Young v. Key Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 112 Wash.2d 216, 225, 770 P.2d 182 (1989), review denied, 118 Wash.2d 1023, 827 P.2d 1392 (1992). We affirm the trial court's dismissal since Buttelo has failed to produce evidence sufficient to establish the existence of each essential element of his claim.

The parties have agreed that this case is controlled by Washington's Products Liability Act, as codified in RCW 7.72. To prevail on his products liability claim, Buttelo needed to establish, among other things, that Paxport was a "product seller" and that Paxport's negligence proximately caused his injury. RCW 7.72.040(1)(a). Buttelo contends that he has produced evidence sufficient to raise genuine issues of fact on these two elements of his claim. We disagree.

We first address Buttelo's failure to demonstrate that Paxport was a "product seller" within the meaning of the statute. The statute defines a product seller as any person or entity engaged in the business of selling or leasing products. RCW 7.72.010(1). By its plain terms, the statute differentiates between those who are "in the business" of leasing or selling and those who are not. Only those who are "in the business of" leasing or selling are "product sellers". Thus, Paxport is a product seller only if it was in the business of leasing products.

The statute does not define the activities that constitute the business of leasing. When the meaning of a statute cannot be derived from a plain reading, a court may use various tools of statutory construction to interpret its meaning. Morris v. Blaker, 118 Wash.2d 133, 142, 821 P.2d 482 (1992). In interpreting the meaning of a statute the court's "fundamental objective ... is to ascertain and carry out the intent of the Legislature." Rozner v. Bellevue, 116 Wash.2d 342, 347, 804 P.2d 24 (1991) (citing Bellevue Fire Fighters Local 1604 v. Bellevue, 100 Wash.2d 748, 751, 675 P.2d 592 (1984), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1015, 105 S.Ct. 2017, 85 L.Ed.2d 299 (1985)). The Legislature's intent can be determined by reference to the statute's underlying purpose. Roza Irrig. Dist. v. State, 80 Wash.2d 633, 637-38, 641, 497 P.2d 166 (1972). Legislative intent can also be derived from the body of common law that was preempted by the statute. See State v. A.N.W. Seed Corp., 116 Wash.2d 39, 45, 802 P.2d 1353 (1991). Our examination of the Legislature's purpose in passing the Products Liability Act, and of the body of common law preempted by the act, persuades us that Paxport was not "in the business of leasing."

Before the Legislature enacted Washington's Products Liability Act, Washington courts had already concluded that product lessors could be subject to products liability claims. Baker v. Seattle, 79 Wash.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (1971). In Baker, the court invalidated a contractual disclaimer that would have relieved the product lessor from the strict liability standard imposed on product sellers. In refusing to uphold the disclaimer, the Baker court reasoned, in part, that such disclaimers were unenforceable in the sale of goods and there was no practical distinction between a seller and a lessor. Baker, 79 Wash.2d at 201, 484 P.2d 405. The court said:

The reasons for imposing the warranty of fitness in sales cases are often present in lease transactions. Public policy demands that in this day of expanding rental and leasing enterprises the consumer who leases be given protection equivalent to the consumer who purchases.

Baker, at 201, 484 P.2d 405 (quoting W.E. Johnson Equip. Co. Inc. v. United Airlines, Inc., 238 So.2d 98 (Fla.1970)).

The Baker court did not explain why or under what circumstances it would hold a product lessor liable for injuries caused by its leased product. However, other courts have done so, and these courts generally hold that a product lessor will be subject to a products liability claim when the quantity and magnitude of its leasing activities indicates that doing so will advance the public policies supporting the duty. See Rivera v. Mahogony Corp., 145 Ill.App.3d 213, 98 Ill.Dec. 538, 540, 494 N.E.2d 660, 662 (1 Dist.1986); Price v. Shell Oil Co., 2 Cal.3d 245, 85 Cal.Rptr. 178, 466 P.2d 722 (1970); Patriot Gen. Life Ins. Co. v. CFC Inv. Co., 11 Mass.App. 857, 420 N.E.2d 918 (1981); Nath v. National Equip. Leasing Corp., 497 Pa. 126, 439 A.2d 633 (1982). See generally, Annot., Products Liability: Application of Strict Liability in Tort Doctrine to Lessor of Personal Property, 52 A.L.R.3d 121 (1973 & Supp.1989).

Several policy reasons justify imposing on product sellers a duty to protect the public from unsafe products. First, the product seller is in a better position than the consumer to "exert pressure on the manufacturer to enhance the safety of the product." See, e.g., Rivera, 145 Ill.App.3d 213, 98 Ill.Dec. at 540, 494 N.E.2d at 662 (quoting Hammond v North American Asbestos...

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