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June 4, 2018

Michigan Supreme Court Clarifies “Reasonably Foreseeable Misuse”

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The state’s high court has finally clarified the meaning and analysis of “reasonably foreseeable” misuse under Michigan’s Product Liability Act. The Act, long considered to be favorable toward product manufacturers, contains a provision stating that manufacturers are not liable for harm caused by product misuse, unless the misuse is “reasonably foreseeable.” While the Act defines “misuse,” it does not define reasonable foreseeability, which has long left courts to find their own definitions. 

Such was the state of the law when plaintiff Steven Iliades filed suit against Dieffenbacker North America, Inc., the manufacturer of a 500-ton press machine. Mr. Iliades was injured when he climbed partway into the machine to retrieve molded rubber parts and became trapped. Though he had been trained to place the press in manual mode before retrieving fallen parts and to use a “parts grabber” to reach into the press to remove parts, Mr. Iliades did neither of those things and instead relied on a safety device referred to as a “light curtain.” The light curtain causes beams of light to pass in front of the opening to the press and, when interrupted by a hand or arm crossing the light beams, the press stops its cycle. The position of Mr. Iliades’ body as he reached into the press was such that the light curtain was not activated and the press continued operating notwithstanding his presence inside it.  

The trial court found that Mr. Iliades misused the machine. Under the Act, misuse is “use of a product in a materially different manner than the product’s intended use,” which can include “uses contrary to a warning or instruction provided by the manufacturer, seller, or another person possessing knowledge or training regarding the use or maintenance of the product.” MCL 600.2945(e). The trial court found that Mr. Iliades’ disregard of his training and knowledge of how the machine and light curtain worked constituted misuse. The trial court further found that this misuse was not reasonably foreseeable because there was no evidence that the manufacturer could have foreseen that a trained press operator would crawl beyond a light curtain and partially inside a press to retrieve a part without first placing the press into manual mode. 

In a split decision, the Court of Appeals reversed. It did not address the question of whether Mr. Ilades’ conduct constituted misuse, and instead focused its inquiry on whether his conduct was “reasonably foreseeable” to the press manufacturer. The majority panel of the Court of Appeals held that Dieffenbacher should have reasonably expected that press operators like Mr. Iliades would disregard their training and rely exclusively on the light curtain. In so holding, the majority employed the criminal-law standard for distinguishing ordinary negligence from gross negligence to define foreseeability and concluded that there was no evidence that Mr. Iliades “obviously committed gross negligence” and that it was reasonably foreseeable to Dieffenbacher that press operators would disregard their training and rely entirely on light curtains for safety.

Dieffenbacher petitioned for leave to appeal. In lieu of granting leave to appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that the majority erred in two respects. First, the majority’s failure to analyze whether Mr. Ilades misused the press affected its analysis of the “reasonably foreseeable” element of his claim. This resulted in the majority “improperly fram[ing] the issue as whether it was reasonably foreseeable that press operators … would rely on the light curtains as exclusive safety devices.” In other words, without deciding whether and how Mr. Iliades misused the press, the majority “could not properly assess whether that misuse was reasonably foreseeable.” 

Second, the majority erred by applying the gross negligence standard of reasonable foreseeability, given the “wealth of reasonable-foreseeability jurisprudence” under Michigan law. The Supreme Court reasoned: 

Had the Legislature intended to use this criminal standard for reasonable foreseeability in civil products-liability cases, as opposed to the common-law definition, the Legislature would have done so. Because the Legislature has not plainly shown a contrary intent, the common-law meaning of “reasonably foreseeable” must apply for purposes of MCL 600.2947(2).

Under Michigan’s common-law meaning of reasonable foreseeability, “the crucial inquiry is whether, at the time the product was manufactured, the manufacturer was aware, or should have been aware, of that misuse.” The error of the majority, then, was to focus solely on the conduct of the plaintiff. The proper analysis requires an analysis on not only the conduct of the plaintiff, but also on the knowledge of the manufacturer, i.e., whether the manufacturer knew or should have known about the misuse employed by a plaintiff.   

The opinion, Iliades, et al v Dieffenbacher North America, Inc., No. 154358, is available here.