Pantazis v. Mack Trucks, Inc., 16–P–1497

Decision Date12 September 2017
Docket NumberNo. 16–P–1497,16–P–1497
Citation87 N.E.3d 1191,92 Mass.App.Ct. 477
Parties Ann E. PANTAZIS, executrix, v. MACK TRUCKS, INC., & another.
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Roger J. Brunelle, Worcester, for the plaintiff.

William J. Dailey, III, Boston, for Mack Trucks, Inc.

Richard L. Neumeier, Boston, for Parker–Hannifin Corporation.

Present: Milkey, Hanlon, & Shin, JJ.

MILKEY, J.

Mark Fidrych owned a dump truck that he used to haul soil. On the morning of April 13, 2009, Fidrych was seen at his farm working on the truck. Later that day, he was found dead underneath it, with his clothing caught up in a spinning universal joint (U-joint) that was part of the mechanical system used to tilt the "dump body" of the truck. The medical examiner identified the cause of death as accidental asphyxiation

. In her capacity as executrix of Fidrych's estate, his widow, Ann Pantazis, commenced a wrongful death action in the Superior Court. She sued, among others, Mack Trucks, Inc. (Mack Trucks), which manufactured the original, stripped-down version of the truck, and Parker–Hannifin Corporation (Parker–Hannifin), which had acquired the assets of Dana Corporation (Dana).3 Dana manufactured a piece of equipment known as a "power take-off" (PTO), which was another part of the system used to tilt the dump body of Fidrych's truck. In two separate summary judgment rulings, different Superior Court judges ruled in favor of each of these defendants.4 We affirm.

1. Background.5 In 1987, Fidrych purchased the truck from Winnipesaukee Truck P & T, an independent Mack Trucks dealer, which had purchased it from Mack Trucks the previous year.6 At the time of Fidrych's purchase, the truck was what is known as an "incomplete vehicle." That meant that the truck had a chassis, cab, and engine, but it lacked essential components (and associated equipment) necessary to carry out the truck's ultimate intended function. Through the installation of additional components, incomplete vehicles can be outfitted for a wide variety of uses. For example, an incomplete vehicle can be outfitted for everything from a flatbed truck to a fire truck.

After purchasing the truck as an incomplete vehicle, Fidrych had it transformed into a dump truck. This involved installing a dump body, as well as a mechanical system (auxiliary power system) for tilting that body. The outfitting of the incomplete vehicle occurred decades before the accident, and it is not known who performed that work.

The auxiliary power system used the truck's transmission as the source of its power, employing a series of components that connected the transmission to a hydraulic pump. The transmission that Mack Trucks provided in the incomplete vehicle was designed so that it could be connected to a PTO, and in this case, a PTO manufactured by Dana was added. Once installed, a PTO is a fully enclosed piece of equipment except for a short metal post that extends from the PTO case. The post spins when the PTO is engaged, and the spinning post can be used to power many different types of equipment. In the particular system installed in Fidrych's truck, the PTO was connected to an exposed auxiliary drive shaft, which in turn was connected to a U-joint (also exposed). Finally, the U-joint was connected to a hydraulic pump that drove the piston that raised and lowered the dump body.

As Fidrych's accident illustrates, having an exposed auxiliary drive shaft and U-joint7 presents serious potential dangers, e.g., to someone working underneath the truck while the PTO is engaged. It is uncontested that this system could have been designed and installed in a manner that alleviated such risks. For example, as the summary judgment record reveals, the need for the exposed auxiliary drive shaft and U-joint could have been obviated by attaching a hydraulic pump directly to the PTO. In addition, guards could have been installed to shield the moving parts. The plaintiff makes no claim that either of the defendants here had any role in designing or installing the auxiliary power system (beyond designing the individual components that each manufactured and sold).

At the time that Mack Trucks sold the incomplete vehicle and Dana sold the PTO, each manufacturer provided various warnings about risks presented by the future use of a completed vehicle. Specifically, the owner's manual that Mack Trucks provided for the truck included a warning about the use of PTOs and associated equipment. As the plaintiff highlights, the warning was set forth approximately midway through a 112–page manual. Its placement aside, the warning, set off in a box labeled "WARNING" and accompanied by triangles containing exclamation points, stated in bold lettering as follows:

"Power take-off (P.T.O.) units and their related equipment can be very dangerous. Any P.T.O. installation, repair or replacement should include a warning lamp which indicates P.T.O. engagement. The lamp must be located close to the P.T.O. control and clearly visible.
"P.T.O. units are driven by the engine or drive train components (flywheel, crankshaft, transmission). No work or service should be performed or attempted on the P.T.O. and related units unless the engine is shut down. Always keep body parts and loose fitting clothing out of the range of these powerful components or serious injury may result.
"Be sure you are aware of the P.T.O.'s engagement/non-engagement and the position of the truck's body (dump body controlled by P.T.O., etc.). Be sure P.T.O. is disengaged when not in use."

At the time Dana sold the PTO that eventually was installed on the Fidrych truck, Dana provided some general warnings in its owner's manuals about the dangers posed by exposed moving equipment attached to a PTO. Dana also distributed warning stickers meant to be affixed to truck bodies in appropriate places. Those warning stickers stated the following:

"CAUTION
"TO PREVENT POSSIBLE INJURY OR DEATH
"DO NOT GO UNDERNEATH THE VEHICLE WITH THE ENGINE RUNNING.
"DO NOT WORK NEAR A ROTATING DRIVE SHAFT TO PREVENT GETTING CAUGHT OR ENTANGLED.
"DO NOT ATTEMPT TO OPERATE THE CONTROLS OF THE POWER TAKE–OFF OR OTHER DRIVEN EQUIPMENT FROM UNDERNEATH THE VEHICLE WITH THE ENGINE RUNNING.
"DO NOT OPERATE THE CONTROLS OF THE POWER TAKE–OFF OR OTHER DRIVEN EQUIPMENT IN ANY POSITION THAT COULD RESULT IN GETTING CAUGHT IN THE MOVING MACHINERY.
"DO NOT ATTEMPT TO WORK ON AN INSTALLED POWER TAKE–OFF WITH ENGINE RUNNING."

At the same time, the installation instructions that Dana provided stated that "the decisions of whether to install guards and/or warning signs shall be the responsibility of the designers or installers."

Over the ensuing years, both Mack Trucks and Dana sought to make various improvements to the warnings they provided. For example, Mack Trucks made the warning included in its owner's manuals more prominent and added a specific warning about the risk of "death," not just "severe personal injury." For its part, Dana sought to improve its warning stickers, e.g., by adding a pictogram that depicts a human figure entangled in an exposed auxiliary drive shaft. In addition, Dana added a specific warning to its owner's manuals urging that auxiliary drive shafts be eliminated wherever possible and, if not, that the designer or installer add a guard.

2. Discussion. a. The nature of the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiff does not argue that the incomplete vehicle that Mack Trucks sold, or the PTO that Dana sold, contained any design defect.8 Rather, the gravamen of her claims is that the manufacturers had a duty to warn installers and end users about the dangers posed by the use of unguarded auxiliary drive shafts and U-joints, because such future uses were foreseeable. After all, she argues, the transmission of the truck was designed so that it could accept a PTO, and PTOs could be operated to power an auxiliary drive shaft. In fact, the plaintiff maintains that the foreseeability of the risks posed by exposed auxiliary drive shafts and U-joints is best demonstrated by the fact that Mack Trucks and Dana each provided some warning about them (warnings that the plaintiff claims ultimately were inadequate). In the alternative, the plaintiff argues that even if the defendants did not face an independent legal duty to warn about such dangers, they voluntarily assumed such a duty when they provided their warnings about such uses. We address each of these claims in turn.

b. The presence of a legal duty. Both defendants manufactured nondefective components of the equipment whose use caused the harm. As the parties recognize, the key case addressing the extent to which such a defendant has a duty to warn of dangers raised by use of the finished product is Mitchell v. Sky Climber, Inc., 396 Mass. 629, 487 N.E.2d 1374 (1986) ( Mitchell ). In Mitchell, the decedent was electrocuted while he was working on what he thought was a loose connection between electrical power cords of motors used to lift scaffolding. Id. at 630, 487 N.E.2d 1374. In fact, the problem was that improper rigging of the scaffolding had cut the insulation of a wire, which then came into contact with an ungrounded junction box that the decedent touched. Ibid. The defendant was the manufacturer of the lift motors that, although having produced only a component of the scaffolding, provided its customers with instruction regarding scaffolding "safety, rigging, operating, and maintenance." Ibid.

In concluding that the defendant had no underlying legal duty to warn of dangers posed by improperly rigged scaffolding, the Supreme Judicial Court endorsed "[t]he prevailing view ... that a supplier of a component part containing no latent defect has no duty to warn the subsequent assembler or its customers of any danger that may arise after the components are assembled." Id. at 631, 487 N.E.2d 1374. The court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the defendant had voluntarily assumed a legal duty by distributing its manuals.9 Id. at 632, 487...

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