An electric supply company that sold non-defective parts for use in a lakeside tram operation can not be held liable for failing to design and include an independent safety mechanism, the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Southern District has ruled in a case of first impression.
“Under the facts of this case,” wrote Judge Phillip R. Garrison, “we believe that, as a matter of law, [electric supply company] had no duty to design or furnish those additional features….”
Citing an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case arising in Missouri and involving similar facts, Garrison said, it “would simply extend liability too far” to hold a supplier responsible for the use of his safe components in a larger defectively designed system.
Springfield attorney Donald E. Woody said he agreed with the court in this case, but that courts will proceed on a case by case basis to determine how much knowledge a component supplier has of the intended use of his parts and the extent to which the supplier was involved in the design of the final system.
“I thought the court did a good job analyzing this case,” said Robert J. Langdon, a Lexington attorney. “They did a good job distinguishing the law as to component parts and finished products.”
The case is Welsh v. Bowling Electric Machinery, Inc., MLW No. 9459, handed down April 29. The Eighth Circuit case was Crossfield v. Quality Control Equipment Co., Inc., 1 F.3d 701 (8th Cir. 1993) and was reported in Missouri Lawyers Weekly, August 16, 1993, “No Duty To Warn When Safe Part Put In Dangerous Machine.
The case began when a tram at the Lake of the Ozarks was descending from a restaurant down to a boat dock. The tram went out of control and threw passengers into the lake.
Suit was filed against the builder of the tram, the operator of the restaurant, and the electric supplier. The builder had ordered from the supplier a drive motor, an electrical control box, an electromagnetic brake, and a gearbox together with a wiring diagram. The supplier provided the parts to the builder’s specifications.
The accident occurred because of a failure of the upper cable drum assembly and there was no contention that any of the components provided by the electric supplier were defective.
The case was settled with the builder and the restaurant operator. The supplier then filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion was sustained and was affirmed on the present appeal.
The injured tram passenger claimed the electric supplier should have foreseen a possible mechanical failure of the tram from independent causes; consequently, the supplier had a duty to design and furnish certain safety features as part of its components. In particular, the passenger said the supplier should have supplied an electrical system that would activate the electromagnetic brake if triggered by a passenger or if the tram car exceeded a certain speed.
The builder, however, specified the components he wanted and did not invite the supplier to participate in the design of the tram. In fact, the court pointed out, there was no evidence that the supplier was furnished with the plans, design or any other information concerning the way the tram would be constructed.
Finally, Garrison wrote, “There were no industry standards which suggested that an independent stopping device should be included in the parts furnished by [supplier].
Finding no Missouri cases on point, the court turned to federal cases on the liability of suppliers of non-defective component parts which are used in a defectively designed larger system. The Missouri-based federal cases cited all held there was no liability in this situation.
Garrison wrote, “We find these authorities persuasive when applied to the facts of the instant case.” He refused to require a component supplier to warn of defects in a completed system when the supplier did not participate in the design of the system and the parts it furnished were not defective and did not cause the system’s failure.
Woody, who often represents plaintiffs, said, “Quite frankly I tend to agree with the opinion. Under these circumstances I think they were stretching to bring the parts supplier into the case.”
“I think this case pretty well insulates component suppliers from liability if they are not aware of the intended application of their parts and they do not participate in the design of the finished product,” Woody said. “If the court had ruled the other way, it would have been ‘Katy-bar-the-door’ on future lawsuits.”
Langdon pointed out that makers of parts for automobiles must anticipate the possibility of a collision, and they have a duty to foresee how their part will act in a collision. “In this case,” he said, “the supplier didn’t know what his parts were going to be used for.”
“It would have been a real interesting case,” Langdon said, “if the builder had brought his tram design in to the supplier and said, ‘Here are the plans, what do you think?'”
Woody thinks at some point, however, a supplier’s level of knowledge will reach a point where a duty to investigate or inquire arises. Given the hypothetical of a rope manufacturer receiving an order for 500 feet of rope on letterhead that says, “Bungee Jumpers ‘R Us,” Woody thought the supplier may have sufficient constructive knowledge of the intended use of the rope to require further inquiry.
Langdon was doubtful on the Bungee example. “Who knows what they’re going to do with the rope? They might use it for crowd control.”
“It’s knowing who you’re selling to and what it’s going to be used for that is real important,” Langdon said.
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(The full text of the Southern District’s opinion in Welsh v. Bowling Electric Machinery, Inc. is available from Missouri Lawyers Weekly, MLW No. 9459–15 pages.)