Using Misuse as a Defense

Janelle P. Kilies

Indiana’s state and federal courts have long held that the incurred risk and product alteration defenses under Indiana’s Product Liability Act (“IPLA”) constitute “complete defenses.”  This means that, if a defendant can prove one of these defenses, the plaintiff is barred from recovering from the defendant for any injuries suffered from the product. Misuse of a product, however, has not traditionally been a complete defense, instead having been considered as part of a comparative fault analysis. That changed with the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Ftezer v. Johnson, where it held misuse of a product constituted a complete defense. 109 N.E.3d 953 (Ind. 2018). The Campbell case has predictably been celebrated by the defense bar as a win, and for good reason. But applying the misuse doctrine, particularly as a complete defense, is nuanced and requires a more thorough understanding of Campbell and related law than the headlines might suggest.

History of the Misuse Defense     

The misuse defense is expressly codified under the IPLA:

It is a defense to an action . . . that a cause of the physical harm is a misuse of the product by the claimant or any other person not reasonably expected by the seller at the time the seller sold or otherwise conveyed the product to another party.

Ind. Code § 34-20-6-4. Misuse of a product is typically a question of fact. However, summary judgment based on misuse is appropriate when the undisputed evidence proves that the plaintiff or another person misused the product in an unforeseeable manner.  Campbell, 109 N.E.2d at 959. Misuse is established as a matter of law when the undisputed evidence proves that the product was used in direct contravention of the product’s warnings and instructions.  Id. To employ the misuse defense as a complete defense, a defendant must show both that the misuse of the product (1) caused the harm and (2) the misuse was not reasonably expected by the seller.  If this cannot be shown, the misuse cannot serve as a complete defense and comparative fault principles would apply.

Overview of Campbell Case

In Campbell, the plaintiff was injured when the cut-off disc of a hand-held grinder came loose and struck him in the eye. The grinder came with an instruction manual that stated the grinder should only be used: (1) with safety glasses and ear protection; (2) with an appropriate safety guard; and, (3) with a cut-off disc that is “rated for a minimum of 25,000 RPM.” While the plaintiff was using the grinder, he failed to use a safety guard, wear protective glasses, or use the properly-rated cut-off disc and was severely injured. He then sued the manufacturer of the grinder under the IPLA. The trial court granted the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff misused the product and was at least 51 percent responsible for his injuries as a matter of law.

The Indiana Supreme Court held that misuse is a complete defense for claims brought under the IPLA and affirmed the entry of summary judgment for the grinder manufacturer. The Court reasoned that, had the plaintiff utilized a safety guard, safety glasses, and an appropriate cut-off disc, he would not have been injured. Therefore, the Court held, the plaintiff’s failure to follow the instructions was the cause of his injuries, and the manufacturer satisfied the first prong of the test.

Next, the Campbell Court evaluated whether the plaintiff’s misuse of the product was reasonably expected by the manufacturer. The Court concluded that, while the manufacturer “could have perhaps reasonably expected a user” to ignore one of the warnings, it was “not reasonably expected for a user to disregard the safety instructions in all three of these ways.”  Ultimately, the Court noted that plaintiff’s failure to heed and follow numerous warnings all at once rendered his misuse of the product unforeseeable, and therefore the manufacturer was entitled to summary judgment.

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