Hayes v. Ariens Co.

Decision Date14 March 1984
Citation391 Mass. 407,462 N.E.2d 273
Parties, 41 A.L.R.4th 1, 38 UCC Rep.Serv. 48 Malcolm R. HAYES, Jr. et al. 1 v. ARIENS COMPANY.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Robert V. Costello, Boston, for plaintiffs.

John P. Morgan, Boston, for defendant.

Before HENNESSEY, C.J., and WILKINS, NOLAN, LYNCH and O'CONNOR, JJ.

O'CONNOR, Justice.

While clearing snow from the driveway of his home, the plaintiff Malcolm R. Hayes, Jr., suffered injuries to several fingers of his left hand as he was attempting to remove snow from the discharge chute of a snow blower manufactured by the defendant, Ariens Company (Ariens). Hayes and his wife, Donna, brought suit in the Superior Court seeking compensation for his injuries and for her loss of consortium. The plaintiffs sued on theories of negligence and breach of warranty of merchantability, alleging that the snow blower was defective in design and that the defendant failed to warn adequately of the snow blower's dangers. The case was submitted to a jury in the form of special questions pursuant to Mass.R.Civ.P. 49(a), 365 Mass. 812 (1974). The jury found that both Hayes and Ariens were negligent and that their negligence combined to cause Hayes's injuries. They attributed sixty per cent of the negligence to Hayes and forty per cent to Ariens. The jury also found that Ariens did not breach its warranty of merchantability. Therefore, pursuant to the trial judge's instructions, they did not reach the question whether a breach of warranty caused Hayes's injuries. They found for Ariens on Donna Hayes's claim of loss of consortium.

Before the jury were discharged, counsel for the plaintiffs informed the judge that in his opinion the special verdicts were inconsistent, stating that it was "impossible to find the defendant to have been negligent in the manufacture of their product and not to have breached their warranty of merchantability." Counsel requested that the jury be told that their verdicts were inconsistent and that they be instructed to deliberate further. The judge denied the request and discharged the jury. Thereafter, judgments were entered for Ariens from which the plaintiffs appeal. We granted the plaintiffs' application for direct appellate review.

The plaintiffs assert error in four respects: (1) the judge erred in entering judgment for Ariens because the answers to the special questions were inconsistent; (2) the judge erred in refusing to instruct the jury that in a breach of warranty case, when the plaintiff has made a prima facie showing that his injury was proximately caused by a product's design, the burden of proving that the product is not defective shifts to the defendant; (3) the judge erred in refusing to instruct the jury that in a products liability case alleging negligence or breach of warranty, when the plaintiff has proved an inadequate warning, the burden of proof on the issue of causation shifts to the defendant; and (4) the judge's instructions improperly took from the jury the issue whether the word "obstructions" on the caution label appearing on the snow blower referred to clogged snow.

We hold that the special verdicts were inconsistent, demonstrating that the jury misunderstood, or at least misapplied, the law. Because it is impossible for us to determine the jury's reasoning, we reverse the judgments, and we remand the case for a new trial on all issues. We discuss the burden of proof issues since they are likely to arise at retrial. We do not consider it necessary to discuss the plaintiffs' fourth assertion of error.

There was evidence that on February 7, 1978, Hayes was using a motor driven snow blower that had been manufactured by Ariens in 1961 and that he had purchased from a third party in 1974. Hayes operated the machine while walking behind it. A large auger, known as a rake, pulled the snow into fast moving impeller blades which took the snow and threw it out the discharge chute. The discharge chute was labelled by Ariens with a warning: "Caution: Stop engine before removing obstructions from blower or rake."

On three occasions that day the discharge chute of the snow blower became clogged with wet and heavy snow. Hayes twice successfully batted the snow from the discharge chute with his left hand without stopping the engine. When the chute became clogged a third time, Hayes employed the same technique. This time, however, Hayes suffered injuries to several fingers on his left hand when they came into contact with the snow blower's impeller blades.

The plaintiffs, through an expert, introduced evidence that the defendant's failure to design the snowblower with a "deadman's clutch" or an "M wire," both of which were economically and technologically feasible at the time of manufacture, did not meet design standards accepted by the industry when the machine was manufactured. Furthermore, there was evidence that the design allowed wet and heavy snow to clog the discharge chute and that the machine was difficult to restart after being shut down for several minutes. From that evidence the jury could have found that it was reasonably foreseeable at the time of manufacture that an operator of the machine would have reason to attempt to remove clogged snow from the machine without turning it off. This, in turn, fairly raised the question whether the warning label was reasonably adequate to alert the operator to the risk of personal injury in doing so. The jury could have found that the snow blower was not reasonably safe and that a reasonably prudent manufacturer would have designed it differently or would have affixed a different warning to it, or both, in order to lessen the risk of injury to users of the machine.

The special verdicts that Ariens was negligent and that Ariens did not breach its warranty were inconsistent. The finding that Ariens did not breach its warranty necessarily imported a finding that the product, including the warning label, was reasonably safe, whereas the negligence finding necessarily imported a finding that it was not. A defendant in a products liability case in this Commonwealth may be found to have breached its warranty of merchantability without having been negligent, but the reverse is not true. A defendant cannot be found to have been negligent without having breached the warranty of merchantability. 2

The trial judge correctly charged the jury that in determining whether Ariens was negligent they should consider whether that company exercised reasonable care in the design of the snowblower and in warning potential users of dangers involved in its use. The judge properly charged, in substance, that Ariens was to be held to the standard of care set by an ordinarily prudent manufacturer in the same or similar circumstances as those of Ariens. See Back v. Wickes Corp., 375 Mass. 633, 643, 378 N.E.2d 964 (1978), and cases cited. The finding of negligence was a statement by the jury about the product and about the manufacturer as well. It signified that the product was unreasonably dangerous because of its design or because of its failure to be accompanied by an adequate warning, or both. It also signified that an ordinarily prudent manufacturer would have recognized the product's shortcomings and would have taken appropriate corrective measures.

In support of its contention that the special verdicts were not inconsistent, Ariens relies on doCanto v. Ametek, Inc., 367 Mass. 776, 785, 328 N.E.2d 873 (1975), and argues: "Having in mind voluminous evidence educed by plaintiff counsel as to subsequent model changes with presumably improved safety features, the jury could well have accepted this as evidence of some negligence by Ariens, in not issuing warnings after the sale of a machine" (emphasis in original). The essence of the defendant's contention is that the special verdicts are reconcilable because the jury could have concluded that although there was neither defective design nor inadequate warning at the time Ariens sold the machine, and that therefore the warranty was not breached, there was a negligent failure to give an appropriate post-sale warning of dangers that were discovered only after the sale. The argument is not persuasive. The finding of negligence could only have been based on a determination of defective design or inadequate warning at the time of the sale. It could not have been predicated on a failure to warn subsequent to the sale for several reasons. First, the judge's charge relative to negligence made no suggestion that the evidence permitted a finding that even though the caution label was adequate when the machine was sold, Ariens nevertheless breached a duty to give further warning after the sale. Second, even if the evidence would have warranted a finding that after the sale of the snow blower Ariens became aware of a danger that was not reasonably discoverable before the sale, which we do not decide, there was no evidence that Ariens reasonably could have notified Hayes, who purchased the snow blower, not from Ariens, but from a third person. Third, in doCanto v. Ametek, Inc., supra at 784-785, 328 N.E.2d 873, we held that when a manufacturer learns or should have learned of a risk created by its negligence (before the sale) "it has a duty to take...

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