Lawson v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc.

Decision Date15 December 2011
Docket NumberNo. 2010–CA–01924–SCT.,2010–CA–01924–SCT.
Citation75 So.3d 1024
PartiesPamela Lynn LAWSON v. HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL, INC. f/k/a Allied Signal, Inc.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Edward A. Williamson, Christopher M. Posey, Philadelphia, attorneys for appellant.

Joseph W. Gill, Edward J. Currie, Jackson, Randal R. Cangelosi, attorneys for appellee.

Before WALLER, C.J., LAMAR and PIERCE, JJ.

WALLER, Chief Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. Plaintiff Pamela Lynn Lawson appeals the trial court's grants of summary judgment to the defendant, Honeywell International, Inc., on Lawson's Mississippi Products Liability Act (“MPLA”) claim and her negligence claim arising from injuries Lawson sustained when her seatbelt buckle allegedly malfunctioned during an automobile accident. We affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment as to Lawson's MPLA claim, as Honeywell is not the “manufacturer” of the buckle for purposes of liability under the MPLA. However, we reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment as to Lawson's negligence claim, and remand for trial, as the MPLA does not preclude common-law claims of negligence against a nonmanufacturing and nonselling designer of a product.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. On July 31, 2005, Lawson lost control of her 1999 Jeep Cherokee while driving from Clara to Waynesboro, Mississippi. The vehicle veered off the highway and rolled over several times before coming to a stop. Lawson claims that, although she had her Gen–3 seat belt buckle correctly fastened at the time of the accident, a defective design in the buckle caused it to malfunction and disengage, resulting in her ejection from the vehicle. Lawson alleges she suffered severe injuries as a result. She filed this action against defendant Honeywell International, Inc., which she alleges originally designed the Gen–3 seat belt buckle before selling it to Chrysler in the mid–1990s.1 Lawson brought claims of strict liability under the MPLA,2 negligence, and negligence per se.

¶ 3. Honeywell denied designing the buckle and denies that the design was defective.3 Furthermore, Honeywell argued that the MPLA is the sole remedy for products liability actions in Mississippi, and that the MPLA does not provide for a cause of action against a product designer that neither manufactured nor sold the product at issue. Thus, Honeywell claimed, even if it did originally design the Gen–3 buckle, it still could not be held liable for Lawson's injuries. The trial court agreed, holding that the MPLA is the exclusive remedy for products liability actions in Mississippi, and that the plain language of the MPLA does not allow design-defect claims against designers who neither manufacture nor sell the product.

¶ 4. Lawson filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which the trial court denied. Accordingly, the trial judge entered final judgment and dismissed Honeywell from the lawsuit with prejudice. Subsequently, Lawson timely filed this appeal.

ISSUES

¶ 5. In her appeal, Lawson asserts the following issues, which we will consider:

I. Whether the trial court erred in holding that Honeywell was not a “manufacturer” for purposes of the MPLA, and in therefore granting Honeywell's motion for summary judgment as to Lawson's MPLA claim.

II. Whether the trial court erred in holding that the MPLA is the exclusive remedy for products liability actions in Mississippi, and in therefore granting Honeywell's motion for summary judgment as to Lawson's common-law negligence claim.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 6. This Court reviews a trial court's grant or denial of summary judgment de novo. One South, Inc., v. Hollowell, 963 So.2d 1156, 1160 (Miss.2007). Summary judgment shall be rendered when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file ... show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists, whereas the nonmoving party is given the benefit of the doubt as to the existence of a material fact. Monsanto Co. v. Hall, 912 So.2d 134, 136 (Miss.2005). When considering a motion for summary judgment, evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Price v. Purdue Pharma Co., 920 So.2d 479, 483 (Miss.2006).

DISCUSSION
I. Whether Honeywell is a “manufacturer” under the MPLA.

¶ 7. The function of the Court is not to decide what a statute should provide, but to determine what it does provide. Russell v. State, 231 Miss. 176, 94 So.2d 916, 917 (1957). The Court must not broaden or restrict a legislative act. Barbour v. State ex rel. Hood, 974 So.2d 232, 240 (Miss.2008) (quoting Miss. Dep't of Transp. v. Allred, 928 So.2d 152, 156 (Miss.2006)). The Court's goal is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature. City of Natchez, Miss. v. Sullivan, 612 So.2d 1087, 1089 (Miss.1992). To determine legislative intent, the Court first looks to the language of the statute. Pinkton v. State, 481 So.2d 306, 309 (Miss.1985). If the words of a statute are clear and unambiguous, the Court applies the plain meaning of the statute and refrains from using principles of statutory construction. Clark v. State ex rel. Miss. State Med. Ass'n, 381 So.2d 1046, 1048 (Miss.1980); see also Gilmer v. State, 955 So.2d 829, 833 (Miss.2007).4

¶ 8. The MPLA provides the exclusive remedy for strict-liability claims against a manufacturer or seller for damages caused by a product that has a design defect rendering it unreasonably dangerous. Miss.Code Ann. § 11–1–63 (Rev.2002). The MPLA states:

[I]n any action for damages caused by a product except for commercial damage to the product itself:

(a) The manufacturer or seller of the product shall not be liable if the claimant does not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that at the time the product left the control of the manufacturer or seller:

(i) ... The product was designed in a defective manner ... and

(ii) The defective condition rendered the product unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer; and

(iii) The defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the product proximately caused the damages for which recovery is sought.

Id. Lawson argues that the plain meaning of “manufacturer” shows that the Legislature intended for the MPLA to be applicable to product designers. According to Lawson, the definition of “manufacture” includes designing; thus, designers are “co-manufacturers.” However, a correct, plain-meaning analysis of the term “manufacturer” excludes a mere “designer” from falling under the statute.

¶ 9. Mississippi law mandates that [a]ll words and phrases contained in the statutes are used according to their common and ordinary acceptation and meaning....” Miss.Code. Ann. § 1–3–65 (Rev.2005); see also Lambert v. Ogden, 423 So.2d 1319, 1321 (Miss.1982) (“Where a popular word is used in a statute with no statutory definition, we follow the well established rule that popular words in a statute must be accepted in their popular sense....”). Since the MPLA provides no specific definition for “manufacturer,” its common or popular meaning must be applied. This Court frequently looks to dictionaries to ascertain the meaning of a word in its common or popular sense. See, e.g., Buffington v. Miss. State Tax Comm'n, 43 So.3d 450, 455 (Miss.2010) (using Black's Law Dictionary and Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary to define “disposes of”); Pegram v. Bailey, 708 So.2d 1307, 1314 (Miss.1997) (looking to Random House Webster's Dictionary to find common meaning of “correspond”); Kerr–McGee Chem. Corp. v. Buelow, 670 So.2d 12, 17–20 (Miss.1995) (upholding use of Webster's Third New International Dictionary to conclude that the popular meaning of “raw material” did not include electricity); Tower Loan of Miss., Inc. v. Miss. State Tax Comm'n, 662 So.2d 1077, 1083 (Miss.1995) (using Black's Law Dictionary to define “book value”) Lambert v. Ogden 423 So.2d 1319, 1321–22 (Miss.1982) (using Webster's Third New International Dictionary to define “truck”).

¶ 10. Black's Law Dictionary defines “manufacturer” as “a person or entity engaged in producing or assembling new products.” Black's Law Dictionary 984 (8th ed. 2004). The Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines “manufacture” 5 as “the making of goods or wares by manual labor or by machinery.” Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary 1172 (2d ed. 1999). Conversely, “designer” is defined as “a person who devises or executes designs ... for works of art or machines.” Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary 539 (2d ed. 1999).6 Based on these definitions, the common usage of the word “manufacturer” does not include “designer.” Accordingly, the plain meaning of a product “manufacturer” does not include a mere “designer” of a product.

¶ 11. Furthermore, this Court has defined what constitutes a “manufacturer” for strict products liability purposes. In Scordino v. Hopeman Bros., Inc., the Court found that the Restatement of Torts (Second) impliedly defined a manufacturer as “a person or company ‘who regularly and in the course of their principal business, create[s], assemble[s] and/or prepare[s] goods for sale to the consuming public. Scordino v. Hopeman Bros., Inc., 662 So.2d 640, 645 (Miss.1995) (quoting Olson v. Ulysses Irrigation Pipe Co., Inc., 649 F.Supp. 1511 (D.Kan.1986)) (emphasis original).7 The Court went on to hold that a manufacturer “produces goods as a principal part of its business and sells them either directly or for resale to the consuming public.” Scordino, 662 So.2d at 645 (emphasis original).

¶ 12. In so doing, the Court did not include mere designers in the definition of a “manufacturer” for purposes of strict liability. A designer of a good does not “produce” the good for direct sale or resale to the consuming public. Black's Law Dictionary defines “produce” as “to bring into...

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