Finz & Finz, P.C., commenced a wrongful death action against a tractor mechanic, a farm neighbor and CNH, the manufacturer of a farm tractor that was modified by bypassing the safety start switch. The switch was intended to prevent the tractor from starting in gear and moving unless the clutch pedal was depressed. Finz & Finz, P.C., alleged that as a result of the bypassed safety start switch, the farm neighbor, who mounted the tractor and started it, did not appreciate the fact that the tractor was in gear when it was started. This caused the tractor to lurch forward, striking and killing our client, the decedent, who was standing next to the tractor at the time it was started.
The action against the tractor mechanic settled for the full insurance policy of $1 Million after depositions were complete.
At the close of discovery, the manufacturer moved for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that the tractor was substantially modified and that plaintiff could not establish that the alleged modification caused the accident.
The general principle in product liability law is that a manufacturer is relieved from liability if there is a substantial modification to a key safety feature after the product has left the manufacturer’s facility. However, here, in opposition to the manufacturer’s summary judgment motion, Finz & Finz, P.C., argued that the Court of Appeals exception to the substantial modification rule applied since the safety start switch had a shorter product life than the usable life of the tractor itself and therefore the switch was subject to failure during the usable life of the tractor.
In addition, the switch was located directly under the dashboard of the tractor and was easily accessible to be bypassed and the tractor was able to be used as intended with the safety feature disengaged. This supported plaintiff’s argument that the tractor was defectively designed when it left the manufacturer’s plant and entered into the stream of commerce.
Finz & Finz, P.C., also argued that the manufacturer failed to submit proof in admissible form establishing that the tractor was free of design defects.
Hon. Daniel Martin of Suffolk County Supreme Court agreed with our arguments, finding that the manufacturer failed to establish its entitlement to summary judgment as a matter of law. The action will be set down for trial against CNH, the farm neighbor and third-party defendant, Peconic Land Trust.
The winning opposition was drafted by Stuart L. Finz and Joshua B. Sandberg of Finz & Finz, P.C.