Product Liability

Product Liability 101: A Vehicle Rollover Case

May 6, 2021
Contributors

This case study involving a rollover vehicle accident provides an interesting overview of a classic and typical products liability case.

In this case, a turf care vehicle known as an “electric greens roller” rolled over and caused the plaintiff to sustain injuries to his knee, leg, and lumbar spine. The vehicle was manufactured and distributed by two defendants. We claimed that the vehicle was not reasonably safe because (1) it was defectively designed, manufactured, and tested, and (2) there was a failure to provide operational instructions and warn of inherent latent hazards and dangers. The rollover accident caused serious injuries to the plaintiff who was operating the vehicle in the course of his employment as a groundskeeper at a country club. 

Synopsis

The rollover accident occurred on the 17th green of a famous golf course at a Westchester County country club in 2015. The plaintiff was 29 years old on the date of the accident; he had been working as a groundskeeper at the country club starting in 2008. 

Who were the Defendants? 

The “electric greens roller” was designed, manufactured, marketed, and sold to equipment dealers or distributors by defendant “S” including dealer/distributor, “M”, who then sold the vehicles to the country club. 

Who Owned & Operated the Vehicle? 

The country club owned the vehicles, #1 and #2, and directed its employees, including plaintiff, to use them as designed and intended for greens rolling operations to prepare golf courses for play. The country club was not a party to the case and it was not alleged that they were negligent in any way. The vehicles were purchased and delivered in 2008. Vehicle #2 was involved in the rollover accident.

The Electric Greens Roller – “Not Reasonably Safe”

The design of the “electric greens roller” is perhaps best described as “more than peculiar.” The greens roller vehicle is equipped with two accelerator pedals but it does not have the customary foot pedal activated braking system that is normally on all other motorized vehicles. The operator sits “saddle-style” in a seat with his legs straddling a metal housing. The operator propels the vehicle to the right by pressing his right foot on the right accelerator pedal and moves the vehicle to the left by pressing his left foot on the left accelerator pedal. The operator can only “stop” the vehicle during operations by “changing directions” or stepping on a different accelerator pedal and propelling the vehicle in the opposite direction. In essence, the operator cannot rapidly bring the vehicle to a stop during rolling operations by abruptly stepping on a brake pedal. 

The greens roller vehicle does have what is variously described in a parts manual as a “parking” brake that is activated by a lever situated to the front left of the operator. The operator must reach forward, grab the lever and pull it backward toward him/her to activate the “parking” brake. The lever activated “parking” brake is inadequate to stop the vehicle on inclined or undulating golf course surfaces during rolling operations; i.e., the “parking” brake cannot bring the vehicle to a stop when the vehicle is rolling especially on the customary inclines and undulations of golf courses.

There was no brake system capable of stopping this vehicle from rolling on inclines or slopes during operation. The only way to prevent the vehicle from uncontrollably rolling down an incline was to redirect the vehicle in the opposite direction – assuming the vehicle’s drive is receiving power from the electric motors.

The plaintiff’s accident occurred when the vehicle stalled during operations, continued to glide despite activation of an inadequate and defective parking brake, rolled over into a steep bunker adjacent to the green, and overturned on top of him. 

The product liability lawsuit claimed that the accident was caused by the vehicle’s design defects, manufacturing defects, failures to provide adequate operating instructions, and failure to give adequate warnings of latent product hazards. Plaintiff’s engineering expert was of the opinion that “the design of the electric greens roller, as manufactured and distributed by the defendants, was deficient, defective and not reasonably safe and violated applicable engineering and safety standards.” The expert’s inspection found that the vehicle could move when pushed with minimal force when the “parking” brake was fully applied on a level concrete floor. This design defect was also a manufacturing defect; therefore, the evidence satisfied both theories of liability.

The plaintiff had approximately 8 years of experience in operating the machine for greens rolling operations prior to the accident. He was aware that the electric greens rollers owned by the country club routinely had power shutoffs during operations. When the shutoffs occurred, the vehicle would continue to roll when it was on an incline or slope and the “parking” brake was ineffective at stopping the vehicle. He estimates that he experienced approximately 13 power shutoffs while operating the vehicle. 

There Was No Operator’s or Owner’s Manual for this Vehicle! 

No operator’s manual for the “electric greens roller” was ever delivered to the country club with the vehicles. In fact, S acknowledged that there was no operator’s manual, owner’s manual or “owner’s instruction manual” for the vehicle. M. acknowledged the same. The lack of an operator’s manual is very peculiar because the vehicle bears a warning label that advised owner and users to read the “operator’s manual” before using the vehicle. S advised that it does have a “parts manual” for the vehicle but it is devoid of any hazard warnings or safety instructions for operators. The plaintiff asked his supervisors for the “operator’s manual” prior to using the vehicle because he read the warning labels but he was told that one did not exist. The lack of an operator’s manual is an established fact in this case.

The complaint alleged that the defendants designed, manufactured, marketed, distributed and sold a vehicle that was not reasonably safe. The plaintiff claimed that the defendants failed to equip the “electric greens roller” with a proper service brake system, designed and manufactured an inadequate and faulty parking brake system, failed to adequately test and inspect the product, failed to provide rollover protection to the operator, failed to warn operators that the vehicle could stall and glide without sufficient braking capabilities during use on graded or sloped areas presenting serious accident hazards, and failed to inform operators how to adequately stop the vehicle in an urgent situation.

A Successful Resolution

The case was successfully resolved for the plaintiff with a substantial settlement prior to trial. This case is a classic demonstration of the reasons why it is so important in a products liability case to investigate all possible angles regarding the factors causing and contributing to the accident at issue from the perspective that the machine is “not reasonably safe” This means that the investigation must look at all facts to determine whether the accident was caused or contributed to by a design defect, a manufacturing defect or a failure to adequately warn about inherent safety hazards in the product. Our product liability lawyers effectively investigated and developed evidence strongly showing liability on all three theories claimed in this case.