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Betty Carter worked at a factory in Everett, Massachusetts until two years ago. Her employer was Midori Lighting Products, Inc. and is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Massachusetts. The factory manufactured airport lighting transformers. At her job, Carter operated a large punch press machine. She was instructed by her employer to place a folded strip of rubber into the slot of a machine, then to place on top of it a cable transformer, and finally to place a second folded strip of rubber above the transformer. She would then press a button to cause the two pieces of rubber to be heated up, pressed by the machine toward the transformer by the moving cylinders and finally wrapped around the transformer. Because the top folded strip sometimes popped out of the machine, her employer instructed her to hold the strip in place with her hand while the cylinders pressed it downward and to remove her hand when the strip could no longer fall out. Ordinarily, machines of this type had a safety shield to prevent the operator from having her hands close to the slot while the machine was operating, but because of the supposed need to hold the rubber in place until it could not fall out, the employer failed to equip the machine with a safety shield.3
The manufacturer is Bruce Springsteen Press Co., located in Portland, Maine. Springsteen normally sold its machines with a safety shield attached and a warning to the customer not to remove the shield except to clean the machine, and then to do so with the machine unplugged from the power source. Midori had heard about Springsteen’s work from other satisfied customers and had called up Springsteen in Maine from Midori’s offices in Massachusetts to order a machine. The Midori manager who ordered the machine told Springsteen that Midori wanted the machine without a safety shield because Midori had some extra safety shields it had removed from several old machines that no longer functioned and would install the safety shield itself back in Everett, Massachusetts. Springsteen informed Midori that it was dangerous to operate the machine without a shield and insisted on getting Midori’s request in writing. The manager sent Springsteen a letter stating:4
“I want you to leave off the safety shield from the press. I have a shield here from an old machine that I can put on myself. As we discussed on the phone, your catalogue lists the safety shield at $300, so the sale price should be reduced by that amount."
When the manufacturer Springsteen shipped the punch press machine to the employer Midori in Everett, Massachusetts, it included a contract of sale that specifically stated in bold red print:6
“This product is constructed in accord with the buyer’s specifications. The buyer assumes responsibility for equipping the product with a safety shield to protect the operator. The seller disclaims any liability for harm caused by the failure of the buyer to install a safety device.”
While operating the machine according to her employer’s instructions, Carter’s hand was caught in the machine and was amputated. She brought a workers’ compensation claim against her employer, but the recovery was limited. She also filed for Social Security disability payments. Finally, she sued the manufacturer of the machine, Springsteen, in tort in Massachusetts state trial court, alleging that the machine was defectively designed because of the absence of a safety shield and that Massachusetts strict products liability law applied. Defendant Springsteen argued that Maine products liability law applied. In addition, Springsteen sued Midori as a third-party defendant, claiming that if Springsteen were liable to Carter, Midori had a contractual obligation to reimburse Springsteen for the amount of the liability since Midori was either fully or partially responsible for the injury.8
The trial judge found that under Massachusetts law, a manufacturer like Springsteen could be held liable to Carter if Carter could demonstrate (as she almost certainly could) that the machine was defective (unreasonably dangerous) without a safety shield. However, under Maine law, Springsteen has an absolute defense to such a claim based on the contract specifications; construction of a product in accord with the buyer’s contractual specifications relieves the manufacturer of liability for any injuries caused by the product, even if those injuries occur to a third party. In contrast, this defense is not available under Massachusetts law; the disclaimer is void as against public policy and the manufacturer is obligated to refuse to sell a product that is unreasonably dangerous without a safety device regardless of the customer’s specifications to the contrary. Under the Massachusetts rule of law, the manufacturer has a duty not to sell an unreasonably dangerous product, no matter what the customer says, in order to protect third parties who may use the product in the future.9
In addition, under Massachusetts law, a manufacturer of a product that injures a worker on the job may not implead the employer as a tort defendant to obtain contribution from the employer even if the employer is partially or even primarily responsible for the harm caused to the plaintiff. Massachusetts workers’ compensation law not only immunizes employers from tort lawsuits by employees injured on the job, but prohibits employees from suing employers indirectly by suing product manufacturers who implead the employer as a third-party defendant. In contrast, under Maine law, employers can be sued by the product manufacturers if the employer’s negligence contributed to the harm to the employee who has successfully sued the product manufacturer.10
The trial must decide two issues.11
1. Does Massachusetts or Maine product liability law apply to Carter’s claim against defendant Springsteen? Does Carter have the right under Massachusetts law to try to prove that the machine was defective when it was shipped by Springsteen or does the Maine contract specifications defense apply to grant Springsteen immunity from liability?12
2. Does Massachusetts or Maine law apply to the cross-claim by Springsteen against third-party defendant Midori? Is Midori immune from liability under Massachusetts workers compensation law or is Midori potentially liable to Springsteen under Maine law?13
π = Carter14
∆/3π = Springsteen15
3∆ = Midori16
June 02, 2014
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