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Rose v. Highway Equipment Co. - Comparative Fault, Unreasonable Use as Bar to Damage Recovery

A claim for damages stemming from an allegation of product liability and negligence brought by a Massachusetts man who was hurt using a lawn tool failed after a jury found him to be more than 50% at fault for his own injuries.

In other states, upon a showing that the product manufacturer was negligent to any extent, the injured man might still have been able to collect some portion of damages. But Massachusetts Gen. Laws,Chapter 231, Section 85 provides that if a jury finds that the man's own negligence was greater than 50%, he may not collect any damages. This law also provides that if the claimant is found to be less than 50% at fault, the amount of his damages will be reduced by that same percentage.

Boston personal injury attorneys know this essentially means that if the plaintiff is found to be partially at-fault for the injury, overall damages will be reduced by the amount of fault assigned. So for instance, if the plaintiff is awarded $150,00, but assigned 30 percent fault, the most he or she could recover from a defendant or defendants would be collectively $105,000 (or 70 percent of the total damages incurred).

However, there are limitations. If a plaintiff is found to be 51 percent or more at-fault, he or she will be barred from recovery.

This model is more forgiving to plaintiffs than the prior Massachusetts common law of contributory negligence, which provided that any assignation of fault to a claimant was a bar to recovery. However, it's less forgiving than those states adhering to the system of pure comparative negligence, which holds a plaintiff found at fault to any degree less than 100% may still recover damages claimed. So a person found to be 75 percent at fault for his injuries could still theoretically collect 25 percent of the total damages.

Obviously, regardless of where the case arises, the goal for plaintiffs is to secure a jury finding with little to no fault on their part. Unfortunately, that was not the case for the plaintiff in Rose v. Highway Equipment Company, argued before the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Boston.

According to court records, the plaintiff was oiling the chain of a broadcast spreader (a piece of lawn equipment) when he severely injured his hand. The lawsuit he filed against the manufacturer asserted negligence and breach of implied warranty of merchantability. The latter count indicates the product failed to reasonably conform to a buyer's ordinary expectations, with no hidden defects.

On the negligence count, the jury found the plaintiff 73 percent negligent. With regard to the breach of implied warranty count, the jury found the consumer's use of the product unreasonable. Thus, recovery on his claim was barred. Unlike the negligence claims, a breach of implied warranty claim may be defeated by the defense that the plaintiff unreasonably proceeded to use a product which he knows to be defective and dangerous. A plaintiff's unreasonable use is a complete bar to recovery.

Upon appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the jury verdict.

In reviewing the facts, the appellate court noted the jury heard numerous accounts of how the plaintiff's hand became caught in the machinery. The plaintiff indicated he was crouching down to spray the chain with an oil solution when he felt a tug on his sweatshirt and felt his right hand and forearm dragged in. However, the defense argued that the man, who admitted that he had a beer earlier that afternoon, lost his balance while on a nearby ladder and fell into the running spreader.

While a breach of warranty claim generally concerns the nature of the product, not the actions of the user, the user does have to show he acted reasonably. However in this case, the plaintiff had previously been instructed by his boss numerous times to stay away from the front of the machine when oiling the chain. He conceded he did not follow this instruction on this occasion because he "thought it would be easier" to do so from the front.

The plaintiff also gave inconsistent testimony about whether or not he had an understanding about the danger that might be caused by oiling the chain. The defense counsel impeached the plaintiff by showing that in his earlier deposition testimony, he admitted that he knew that putting his hand in the spreader could result in injury.

His undisputed decision to drink alcohol prior to completing this job contributed to the finding of contributory negligence and unreasonable use.

Make your case matter. Contact the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone and schedule a free case evaluation. We can help you hold the one at fault responsible and get the compensation you deserve for your losses.

John McQuade