Justices erase Jefferson County verdict against aerial lift maker Genie Industries

The SE Texas Record May 12, 2015, 7:55am


BY RECORD NEWS

AUSTIN – Jefferson County jurors made a mistake when they blamed an aerial lift for an electrician’s death, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled on May 8.

Six of nine Justices rendered judgment for Genie Industries, manufacturer of a lift that belonged to Cathedral in the Pines of Beaumont.

The Justices rejected a verdict holding Genie 55 percent responsible for the death of Logan Matak, who fell 40 feet when the lift toppled.

The jury found total damages sustained by the plaintiffs at $1,305,701.70.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht blamed the fall on a group decision to move the lift without lowering Matak to the floor.

“While misuse of the lift can result in the most serious injury, as this case illustrates, the likelihood of its occurrence is all but nonexistent,” Hecht wrote.

“The risk of misuse in this case cannot in any sense be said to be likely.”

Three Justices dissented, holding that they would have affirmed the verdict even though they probably would have disagreed with it.

Matak worked for Gulf Coast Electric when Cathedral of the Pines hired Gulf Coast to run fiber optic cable in its ceilings.

The church had paid about $10,000 for a Genie lift, with a narrow base on wheels and a telescoping mast that could raise a work platform as high as 40 feet.

The lift weighed half a ton, but a single person could push it through a doorway, roll it around, set it up and operate it.

Instructions provided that before raising the platform, an operator had to stabilize the lift with four outriggers that extended about three feet from the base.

Several signs warned an operator not to release the outriggers while using the lift.

A sign at eye level showed a man pushing an elevated lift and warned, “Tip-over hazard. Attempting to move the machine with the platform raised will tip the machine over and cause death or serious injury.”

Church employee John Adams told Matak and his supervisor, James Boggan, that the work would go faster if they moved the lift with Matak in it.

Adams said they could roll it if they raised leveling jacks on the outriggers.

He said church employees did it all the time, though they had not done it with the platform at 40 feet.

Adams moved the lift with Matak in it twice, bringing him all the way down the first time and down to 10 or 12 feet the second time.

Later, Matak asked Boggan to move him.

Boggan began to raise a jack, and Adams came over to do the same.

Matak called out, “I’m leaning.”

The lift tipped over and he suffered fatal head injuries.

At trial before District Judge Gary Sanderson, Genie safety director Rick Curtin admitted he knew the lift would tip over if not properly stabilized.

“That’s been in my mind since I started working with the company,” Curtin said.

He said he could not recall that the company ever discussed or tried to develop an alternative design.

“I don’t believe that there is any way to design out having somebody misuse the machine by taking the outriggers out,” he said.

He said warnings and instructions were part of the design.

For Matak’s family, engineer Ken Zimmer proposed three safer designs.

Jurors apportioned 55 percent responsibility to Genie, 20 percent to the church, 20 percent to Gulf Coast, and five percent to Matak.

Genie appealed, and a docket equalization order of the Supreme Court transferred the case from the Ninth District in Beaumont to the 13th District in Corpus Christi.

Judges there affirmed the verdict last year, finding numerous facts to indicate that the lift was unreasonably dangerous.

“These conflicts and disputes were the type for which reasonable minds could disagree, and thus, cannot be decided as a matter of law,” justices at the 13th District held.

The Supreme Court reversed the 13th District, finding little evidence of a safer design and no evidence of unreasonable danger.

“The right to trial by jury in civil cases is constitutionally protected because we have, as a polity, determined to lay the resolution of factual disputes at the feet of our peers,” Hecht wrote.

“But when the facts admit of only one reasonable conclusion, it is the rule of law that must supply the decision, lest jurors be given the very power from which they are intended to protect us, deciding for whatever reasons seem good to them who should and should not prevail.”

Hecht quoted a decision from 1995, Caterpillar v. Shears, that, “The law of products liability does not guarantee that a product will be risk free.”

He quoted from the same case that, “Texas law does not require a manufacturer to destroy the utility of his product in order to make it safe.”

“A product is unreasonably dangerous when its risk outweighs its utility.”

Hecht wrote that one of Zimmer’s designs would add danger, one would diminish the lift’s versatility, and one would do little to prevent misuse.

He wrote that Genie has sold more than 100,000 lifts all over the world, which have been used millions of times.

“But the record does not reflect a single misuse as egregious as that in this case,” he wrote.

Justices Paul Green, Phil Johnson, Don Willett, Eva Guzman and Jeff Brown joined Hecht’s opinion.

Justices Jeffrey Boyd, Debra Lehrmann, and John Devine dissented.

Boyd wrote that if he had been a juror, he probably would have decided that the lift was not unreasonably dangerous and not defectively designed.

“But I’m not sure, nor need I be, because no one is asking what I would have decided if I had been a juror,” Boyd wrote.

“[W]e cannot trump the jury’s decision unless no reasonable juror hearing the evidence in this case could possibly have reached it.”

“This record contains at least some evidence that it was both foreseeable and likely that untrained non-professionals would use the Genie lift, that they would destabilize it while the platform was raised and occupied despite the warnings and the allegedly obvious dangers, and that doing so would result in serious injuries and death, no matter how high the platform is elevated.

“I agree that the evidence conclusively establishes that the lift’s stability is substantial. But the jury concluded that its risks outweighed its utility, however great its utility may be.”

Clark Smith, Constance Pfeiffer, Clifford Harrison, and Stephan Selinidis, all of Houston, represented Genie.

Edward Fisher, James Payne and Jennifer Seale, all of Provost Umphrey in Beaumont, represented Matak’s family.

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