May 8, 2015

Texas Supreme Court: No tort liability for intentional misuse of a Genie lift

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

Today, the Texas Supreme Court held in Genie Industries v. Matak that when people intentionally misuse a product in a way that is obviously dangerous, the manufacturer is not liable for the injuries that inevitably result from that intentional misuse. PLF filed an amicus brief in the case.

The case arose when a church in Texas hired two electricians, James Boggan and Walter Matak, to install fiber optic cables and pipe in the church’s ceiling. The church offered the men use of its Genie lift. The workers were fully trained on the machine, which has outriggers extending from its narrow base to stabilize it while the platform is extended 40 feet in the air. But John Adams, a church employee, suggested that, instead of lowering the lift each time that the machine needed to be moved to a new location in the room, Boggon and Adams should instead withdraw the stabilizing outriggers and push the machine around the room while Matak stood on at the top of the fully-extended lift. The men intentionally misused the machine in violation of the lift’s manual, eye-level illustrated warnings, and a church supervisor’s verbal warnings. As anyone could have predicted, the lift tipped over and Matak died from his injuries. Matak’s parents and estate representative sued Genie, the church, and the electric company. They argued that the electric lift was defectively designed because it failed to prevent the intentional misuse. The jury found Genie liable, and apportioned 55% of the fault to Genie, 20% to the church, 20% to the electric company, and 5% to the Matak—leaving Genie jointly and severally liable for 95% of the $1.3 million award.

The Texas Supreme Court, noting that over 100,000 lifts of the same general model have been sold worldwide with not one other instance of intentional destabilization of a fully-extended 40-foot lift, held that the “lift cannot be said in any sense to be unreasonably dangerous.” The court commented on the extensive warnings provided by Genie and the flat-out obviousness of the danger that should have deterred the men. While respecting the constitutional role of juries, the court rejected the verdict in this case: “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.” The bottom line is that tort law does not guarantee that a product will be risk free, only that it will not be unreasonably dangerous. Product users who fail to follow simple instructions and heed clear warnings, particularly when the risk of injury is apparent, reap what they sow; there is no societal obligation via tort law to compensate them.

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