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No liability for device makers in distracted truck driver crash

By: Paul Tharp//February 11, 2011

No liability for device makers in distracted truck driver crash

By: Paul Tharp//February 11, 2011

By PAUL?THARP, Staff Writer

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Two companies that manufacture communications devices for truck drivers have been dismissed from a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs injured in a 2008 accident on Interstate 40 in North Carolina.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell had recommended that Geologic Solutions, Inc.’s and Xata Corporation’s 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss be allowed because the plaintiffs failed to state a recognized cause of action.

Judge Howell concluded that “a cause of action does not lie for products liability negligence under N.C.G.S. § 99B-6 against a product manufacturer for harm caused to third parties by an end user’s misuse or poor judgment in the use of a product.”

U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger adopted Judge Howell’s recommendation on Jan. 27, 2011 in Durkee v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., et al.

Asheville, N.C., attorney Brady J. Fulton, who represented Geologic and Xata, said the ruling could be used as precedent by attorneys representing manufacturers in all manner of distracted driver injury cases.

In at least one case, Bailey v. Estate of Jett – a companion case to Durkee arising out of the same accident – Judge Howell’s recommendation was adopted by Judge Reidinger to justify dismissal of the same two device makers from the suit. The dismissal of Geologic and Xata from the Bailey case was filed on Jan. 31.

While the Durkee decision is not binding authority on state courts, Fulton said, the case could be used as “very persuasive authority” by device makers sued in tort cases.

“I think Durkee will definitely have significant precedential value going forward in similar cases,” Fulton said.

The two linchpins of Judge Reidinger’s decision to grant the device makers’ dismissal, Fulton said, were duty and proximate cause.

“Ultimately, the people who were tragically injured by the negligent driver in this case did not have any relationship with product manufacturers,” Fulton said. “The product manufacturers had a relationship with the company that employed the negligent driver, but they didn’t have any kind of duty with respect to the plaintiffs.”

Judge Reidinger wrote in the memorandum of decision and order “that the law in North Carolina does not impose a duty on the manufacturer of a product to design it in such a manner that the user thereof is incapable of being distracted by its use while driving.”

While Judge Reidinger’s decision was premised on the fact that the device makers owed no duty to the injured plaintiffs, the memorandum suggested that even if there had been a duty, the plaintiffs would not have been able to show that the design of the communications device was the proximate cause of their injuries.

“[T]he duty owed by a manufacturer … does not require him to … protect against injuries resulting from the user’s own patently careless and improvident conduct,” Judge Reidinger wrote.

If such a duty were imposed – a duty, in other words, to account for misuse of a product – Judge Reidinger suggested product makers might be subject to unending liability.

“If such a legal duty to anticipate misuse were to be imposed on manufacturers,” Judge Reidinger wrote, “no vehicle would be capable of traveling above the speed limit, car ignitions would all be equipped with ignition interlock devices, and guns would not be sold to persons with poor judgment.”

Both the Durkee and Bailey cases will continue against other defendants named in the suits.

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