By Isaac Monterose
Law360 (March 2, 2022) — A Georgia federal court sided with major forklift manufacturer Crown Equipment Corp. on Tuesday against injury claims by a driver who hit a fixed object and was ejected from the vehicle, saying the open compartment of the driver’s seat is an “open and obvious” hazard.
U.S. District Judge Michael L. Brown’s 24-page opinion determined that summary judgment in favor of Crown Equipment was appropriate because JCPenney forklift operator Kenan Johnson, who had been trained in the use of Crown Equipment’s RC5500 forklift, would’ve obviously known that he could be ejected after using the service brake and hitting an overhead steel beam due to the forklift’s open compartment for the driver’s seat.
Judge Brown also rejected Johnson’s reconsideration motion for the exclusion of his expert, Edward Beard. According to the opinion, Beard’s opinions were about the possibility of a forklift operator losing their balance when using the service brake and the need for a warning about that possibility.
But, Johnson failed to justify “in any substantive manner” why Beard’s opinions were relevant to his suit since Johnson had testified that losing his balance while using the service brake didn’t occur in his workplace accident. Though he used a new argument in his reconsideration motion about imbalance being a factor in the accident, Judge Brown said that the motion isn’t “a vehicle to present new arguments that should have been raised earlier.”
According to the opinion, Johnson had been driving his forklift in a Georgia JCPenney distribution center in February 2018 when he used the forklift’s service brake to stop and let another forklift pass him. While using the brake, he drove the forklift’s mast into the steel beam, got ejected from the driver’s seat, struck a pole and ended up getting hit by his own forklift while he was on the ground.
Johnson claimed that he suffered significant leg and foot injuries as a result of the accident and alleged in his suit, which was filed in January 2020, that Crown Equipment failed to warn him about the potentially serious ejection hazard.
Johnson had said that he wouldn’t have used the forklift if he had known about the possibility of being ejected from the driver’s seat. However, Crown Equipment argued that since there was an open compartment for the driver’s seat then it was obvious that the driver would be ejected if they drove into something like an overhead steel beam. According to the opinion, Johnson responded by arguing that the open compartment didn’t mean that a forklift driver would obviously know that they would be ejected if they hit an object or are hit by something.
Both sides of the suit cited Georgia personal injury & product liability lawsuits to support their arguments, but Judge Brown found Crown Equipment’s use of a Georgia appellate court’s 1990 ruling in Weatherby v. Honda Motor Co. to be “the most analogous” for Johnson’s suit.
In Weatherby, a boy suffered severe burns after gasoline spilled from his off-road motorcycle due to a missing gas cap. The gasoline ignited after touching an exposed spark plug. Honda was hit with a lawsuit that claimed that the motor company should’ve issued a warning about the lack of a gas cap tether for the motorcycle.
But, a trial court granted summary judgment to Honda since the danger of driving a motorcycle without a gas cap that also didn’t have a tether was “open and obvious,” and a state appellate court backed the ruling, according to the opinion’s summary.
“Like the absence of a gas cap tether, the absence of a door or wall on the RC5500 is obvious. The danger at issue is the potential for ejection when the forklift hits a fixed object,” Judge Brown wrote. “And like the open fuel tank resting over the motorcycle engine and spark plug, the open operator compartment surely suggests the possibility of ejection upon collision with a fixed object. Every operator (including plaintiff) would see the open operator compartment and realize he or she could be ejected if he or she hits something—an open and obvious threat for which no warning is necessary.”
“As defendant notes, this would be analogous to a motorcycle driver claiming he needed a warning that he could be ejected from the motorcycle if he struck a fixed object, such as another vehicle or telephone pole,” he continued. “The court finds, as a matter of law, that the danger in this case was open and obvious.”
Judge Brown also said that even if Crown Equipment was obligated to warn forklift operators about the ejection hazard, Johnson had received specific warnings from, for example, the forklift’s warning label about possibly being injured or trapped if they hit overhead objects.
Michael Correnti, an attorney for Crown Equipment told Law360 in a statement on Wednesday that Judge Brown’s ruling was the correct one.
“The court correctly determined that the alleged hazard of a potential objection was open and obvious and that Crown’s warnings adequately address any purported hazard such that no additional warning would have changed Plaintiff’s behavior, especially when considering he already failed to heed numerous warnings already on the RC5500,” he said.
“The court also struck plaintiff’s expert, Edward Beard, because his opinions were not helpful in this case,” he continued. “Crown continues to aggressively defend any lawsuits claiming their products are defective. Crown’s continued success at the motion for summary judgment stage, as well as the trial stage, shows that judges and jurors agree that Crown safely designs its products.”
Johnson’s attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Kenan Johnson is represented by Benjamin R. Keen and D. Michael Andrews of Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles.
The case is Johnson v. Crown Equipment Corporation, case number 1:20-cv-00304, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
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