Ford Motor Co. v. Rodgers

Decision Date24 September 1976
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Michael D. Knight, Mobile, for appellant.

Charles C. Partin, III, Bay Minette, for appellee.

HEFLIN, Chief Justice.

Appellant, Ford Motor Company, brings this appeal after suffering an adverse jury verdict which awarded damages to appellee Boyd Rodgers, in the sum of $15,000. This judgment was rendered as compensation for injuries which Bodgers sustained when the hydraulic system of a Ford combine failed and the corn header attached to the combine and under which Rodgers was working fell on him. A corn header is a piece of equipment which weighs approximately 4,000 pounds and attaches to the front of a combine. It serves to mechanically harvest ears of corn and place them in a bin. A corn header has a revolving end that cuts like a lawn mower and brings what is cut into the machine and then separates the ears of corn from the foliage.

Rodgers' amended complaint alleged that Ford Motor Company's negligence was based on one of the following grounds: (1) Failing to use due care in the manufacture of the combine; or (2) Failing to properly design said combine; or (3) Failing to warn the plaintiff of the dangerous condition created. when the corn header was raised.

In December, 1972, Rodgers purchased a 1968 Ford 630 self-propelled combine, one of 300 produced by a West German company and marketed by Ford Motor Company during June of 1968. Rodgers took delivery of the Ford 630 combine during 'the last of May or first of June' 1973. The sales invoice listed the combine as a new machine although at the time of the purchase Rodgers was aware of the fact that the combine was a used one. One of the officials of the Ford dealer, Carl Grant Tractor Company, a co-defendant in the action below, testified that he told Rodgers at the time of purchase that the hydraulic system of the combine would raise and lower whatever corn header was attached to the combine and hold it in a raised position. In July, 1973, Rodgers purchased a used corn header from Grant.

On the morning of the accident, July 31, 1973, Rodgers testified that he started the engine on the combine, activated the hydraulic system controlling the position of the corn header and raised it to a sufficient height so that he could sit underneath the header and grease it. Rodgers then crawled underneath the header and had begun greasing it when he found it necessary to move out from underneath the header. While crawling out on his hands and knees, the header suddenly fell and struck Rodgers, causing a compression fracture of one of his vertebrae.

It was discovered that the hose of the hydraulic system had ruptured at the location where the hose went into a coupling, causing a loss of pressure and the header to fall. There was testimony from a witness who qualified as an expert that the coupling to the hose was insufficient in length, contending that if the sleeve of the coupling had been longer it would have had more strength and been able to withstand greater hydraulic pressure. There was evidence the rupture occurred at the joinder of the hose with the coupling.

Another of the plaintiff's claims was that the hydraulic system should have been equipped with a safety assembly or sleeve or device to prevent the header from falling if the hydraulic system malfunctioned while the header was in a raised position. If not, then Ford was under an obligation to warn of possible dangers from the hydraulic system.

Ford contends, first, that it was entitled to a directed verdict because Rodgers failed to prove at the time of the injury he was applying the equipment to a use for which it was manufactured and in a usual and customary manner. Ford relies on a number of Alabama cases, including Miles v. Chrysler Corporation, 238 Ala. 359, 191 So. 245 (1939), and Norton Company v. Harrelson, 278 Ala. 85, 176 So.2d 18 (1965). With respect to the doctrine of 'manufacturers' liability' the defendant contends the following language from Norton is applicable to the case:

'This doctrine is applicable in a limited number of situations. The defendant must be either the manufacturer or seller of the injury-producing article. There is no privity of contract between the defendant and the injured plaintiff. At the time complained of the article must have been applied to the use for which it was manufactured and sold and that use must be in the usual and customary manner. Where these circumstances exist the manufacturer or seller will be liable for an injury proximately resulting from the use of the article but only where the article is inherently or imminently dangerous to human life or health, or becomes so when put to its intended use in the proper manner. This liability arises from either the negligent manufacture of the article or negligence in selling it.' (Emphasis added)

278 Ala. 85, 88, 176 So.2d 18, 20--21.

Ford contends that the usual and customary manner of greasing the header was from above and if it were to be greased from below then it would be usual and customary to use a blocking device, such as a jack or a timber, to secure the header.

There was evidence that the machinery was being used in an open, rough field to harvest corn which was certainly the usual and customary use of the machinery. There was evidence that it was necessary that the corn header be in a raised position regardless of whether the greasing was being done from above or below; that greasing had to take place every 4 to 6 hours in the field while operating; that if the hydraulic system failed there would be a danger of being injured regardless of whether the greasing occurred while the person was above the machine or below the machine and that there were grease fittings beneath the header in which it was necessary to insert a grease gun. There was also evidence that in the operation of the corn header it was necessary to raise and lower the header with the combine's hydraulic system for many purposes, including the greasing function.

Under the evidence in this case questions for determination by the trier of facts were correctly presented as to whether the machinery was being applied to a use for which it was manufactured and sold and whether that use was in a usual or customary manner.

Ford contends that the trial court erred in not granting its motion for directed verdict regarding Rodgers' claim that Ford was negligent in failing to warn Rodgers of the dangerous condition created when the corn header was in a raised position. Ford asserts that it was under no duty to warn because the danger of going under the raised header was open and obvious.

A manufacturer is not under a duty to warn the user of every danger that may exist during use of his product. The objective of placing a duty to warn on the manufacturer or supplier is to inform a user of the danger for which he is not aware, therefore, there is no duty to warn when the danger is obvious. 72 C.J.S. Supp. Products Liability §§ 25, 26. See also Frumer and Friedman, Products Liability, Volume I, pp. 143--187 (1975).

This court recognized the duty of a manufacturer to warn in Altorfer Brothers Co. v. Green, 236 Ala. 427, 183 So. 415 (1938), when it stated that if a manufacturer places a machine on the market which is imminently dangerous when put to its intended purpose, then the manufacturer is chargeable with the duty 'not to expose to such danger an ignorant public who will likely use it. And if defendant (manufacturer) knows that it is imminently dangerous when used in the customary manner, it is chargeable with...

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