Mason v. Ashland Exploration, Inc.

Decision Date01 July 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-1274,91-1274
Citation965 F.2d 1421
PartiesProd.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 13,200 Clarence W. MASON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ASHLAND EXPLORATION, INCORPORATED, a corporation, Ashland Oil, Incorporated, a corporation, and National Supply Company, a Division of Armco Steel Corporation, a corporation, Defendants- Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Joseph Phebus (argued), Nancy J. Glidden, Phebus, Tummelson, Bryan & Knox, Urbana, Ill., James H. Cooksey, Crain, Cooksey, Veltman & Miller, Centralia, Ill., Brad L. Badgley, C.E. Heiligenstein, Heiligenstein & Badgley, Belleville, Ill., for Clarence W. Mason.

James W. Erwin, Thompson & Mitchell, Belleville, Ill., Raymond L. Massey, Thompson & Mitchell, St. Louis, Mo., for Ashland Exploration, Inc. and Ashland Oil, Inc.

John L. McMullin (argued), Beth K. Veath, Brown & James, St. Louis, Mo., for National Supply Co.

Before CUMMINGS and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges, and WILL, Senior District Judge. *

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Clarence Mason, a painter, was seriously injured when he caught his hand in the rotating counterweights of an oil pump. In 1986, he filed a diversity action in the Southern District of Illinois against the pump's owners, Ashland Oil, Inc. and Ashland Exploration, Inc. (collectively referred to as "Ashland"), and the pump's manufacturer, National Supply Company ("National"). In 1991, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Ashland and National, concluding that, under Illinois law, they had no duty to warn or to protect Mr. Mason from the obvious dangers of the counterweights. Mr. Mason appeals these decisions, and, for the following reasons, we affirm.

A. Facts

This case arises from an accident at Ashland's "Flora North Unit 3" oil production facility, near Flora, Illinois. In 1984, Ashland was in the process of refurbishing the Flora unit. As part of its overhaul, it converted the pump from gas to electric power and also brought in a contractor to clean and paint the pump. On September 21, 1984, Mr. Mason and his colleague Virgil Halterman were sent by their employer Carl Paul to paint the Flora pump, which had previously been cleaned. Mr. Mason was an experienced painter who had painted oil pumps in the past. Before beginning work on the unit, Mr. Mason and Mr. Halterman shut down the electric engine that was powering the pump and braked, or locked, the counterweights. Mr. Mason testified that he did this as a safety precaution because he knew that rotating counterweights were dangerous. R.122, Mason Dep. at 147.

Mr. Mason and Mr. Halterman finished the painting job, and Halterman restarted the pump. During the course of cleaning up and stowing equipment, Mason stood next to the operating pump and attempted to straighten out a painting hose. In his deposition, Mr. Mason admitted that, when he was dealing with the hose, he was aware that the pump was on and that the counterweights were moving. R.122, Mason Dep. at 112. What happened next is uncertain, but Mr. Mason somehow fell into the pump and one of the counterweights severed his right hand. Complications later required amputation of his right arm.

For the purpose of determining whether summary judgment was appropriate, some additional facts are relevant. First, it is apparent from the record that the counterweights that injured Mr. Mason were conspicuous, and that the danger that they posed was obvious. Second, guards were available that could have shielded the counterweights, and presumably would have prevented Mr. Mason's injury. Third, at the time of the accident, these guards were not on the pump, although Ashland was planning to add them as part of its refurbishment of the unit. It is unclear from the record whether National supplied counterweight guards when it manufactured the pump in the 1940s. Finally, in his brief, Mr. Mason states that the configuration of the counterweight guards

is based in part on the configuration of the pump and the configuration of the engine. Accordingly, the counterweight guards that would be used for a pump with a gas motor would be different from the configuration that would be used if the motor was changed to an electric motor.

Appellant's Br. at 10-11. As a result, "with the new electric motor, the counterweight guards would be a different configuration than the guards that would have been used with the prior engine had the pump previously been equipped with guards." Id. at 11. The witness Mr. Mason cites for this proposition, an Ashland employee named Lester Murphy, testified in his deposition that the guards on an electric pump "would have been a different size" than the guards on a gas pump. R.124, Murphy Dep. at 51.

B. District Court Proceedings

After discovery, both Ashland and National moved for summary judgment. In a pair of opinions, the district court analyzed the duties of both defendants under Illinois law. With regard to Ashland, the court first found that sections 343 1 and 343A 2 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which state a possessor of land's duties to an invitee, governed Ashland's conduct. The court then reasoned that Ashland had no liability under section 343(b) because it logically could expect that Mr. Mason, a professional painter who was experienced in painting oil wells, would appreciate the dangers of the counterweights and protect himself from them. "To find that Ashland should expect that Mason would not realize the danger inherent in painting a pump, or would fail to protect himself against that danger, the Court would have to conclude that Mason did not realize the nature of [the] activity he undertook to perform." Mason v. Ashland Exploration, Inc., No. 86-C-3453, mem. op. at 5 (S.D.Ill. Sept. 29, 1989). The court further concluded that section 343A(1) would place liability on Ashland for the obvious danger of the counterweights only if it was foreseeable that Mr. Mason would work next to an operating pump. It then determined that

[t]he "objectively reasonable" range of injuries that Ashland should have foreseen would not include those which would result from Mason being near enough to the pump to be struck when it was started. Mason's accident was a tragedy; but it was not one which Ashland should have foreseen, and not one for which § 343A(1) imposes liability.

Id. at 7-8.

In reaching this decision, the court distinguished several cases applying Illinois law which have imposed liability under section 343A for injuries from an obvious danger, when it was foreseeable that the plaintiff would be distracted from the danger, or would proceed despite it. 3 See Mason, mem. op. at 5-12 (S.D.Ill. Sept. 29, 1989); Mason, mem. op. at 2-5 (S.D.Ill. Jan. 7 1991). The court found that there was no indication in the record that anything existed at the job site that would have distracted Mr. Mason from the pump. However, even if Mason had failed to protect himself from the counterweights, "Ashland could not be charged with the duty to have foreseen such an occurrence. To suggest that Mason might forget or be distracted from the danger on which his attention was focused ... is to conclude that Mason was uninformed about aspects of the job he was to perform." Mason, mem. op. at 11 (S.D.Ill. Sept. 29, 1989). The court also held that Mason's injury did not arise because he was compelled to face the danger in order to keep working. Instead, Mason was a contractor who entered Ashland's property for the express purpose of working on the dangerous oil pump, and, therefore, Ashland "should have the liberty to anticipate that the invitee will not fail to protect himself from the danger." Id. at 9-10.

The court then addressed whether National, the manufacturer of the pump, had any liability for not warning Mr. Mason or protecting him from the pump. As in the case of Ashland, the court began its analysis by remarking that the danger presented by the counterweights was obvious. It then noted that there was no allegation in the case that the pump was more dangerous than would be normally expected, given the nature of the product. Consequently, the court held that, as a matter of law, National owed no duty of care to Mason. Mem. op. at 16-17 (S.D.Ill. Sept. 29, 1989). Alternatively, the court found that Mason's employer, Carl Paul, was aware of the dangers that the pump posed to his employees. Any failure to warn Mason of the danger therefore was the fault of Paul, and not of National. Finally, the court found that Mason actually knew of the pump's hazards. Therefore, National was not liable, because a manufacturer has no duty of care when a product "functions properly for the purposes for which it was designed, was without defect, and created no danger or peril not known to the user." Id. at 19.

A. Standard of Review

Mason appeals the grant of summary judgment in favor of both Ashland and National. We review de novo a district court's decision to grant summary judgment. La Preferida, Inc. v. Cerveceria Modelo, S.A. de C.V., 914 F.2d 900, 905 (7th Cir.1990). Summary judgment is appropriate only if no genuine issue of material fact exists, and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. In this diversity case, because both parties agree that the substantive law of Illinois governs, we shall apply that state's law. Wood v. Mid-Valley Inc., 942 F.2d 425, 426-27 (7th Cir.1991). " 'The decision of a federal court in a ... case in which state law supplies the rule of decision, is an exercise in predicting how the highest court of the state would decide the case if it were presented to it.' " Midwest Knitting Mills, Inc. v. United States, 950 F.2d 1295, 1298 (7th Cir.1991) (quoting Konradi v. United States, 919 F.2d 1207, 1213 (7th Cir.1990)); see also Brooks v. Chicago Downs Ass'n, 791 F.2d 512, 514 (7th Cir.1986) ("Because the Illinois Supreme Court has never directly confronted the issue ......

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