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Turning a Case Around

Case Study

Turning a Case Around

This article originally appeared in Goldberg Segalla’s Product Liability Playbook. Read the issue here.

The New York Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a global heavy-equipment manufacturer that a Queens County jury found liable in the death of a man crushed by a tree while operating a rented front-bucket loader.

Defending the manufacturer this time will be Goldberg Segalla partners David S. Osterman and Matthew G. Miller. Though the firm was not involved in the case at the time of the first trial or a failed first appeal, it was retained to pursue a second appeal and turned the case around with two important legal victories on behalf of the heavy-equipment manufacturer:

David, Brendan T. Fitzpatrick, and Neil A. Goldberg successfully sought leave to take the case to the Court of Appeals, which happens only about three percent of the time. Then Brendan, the lead attorney on the appeal, successfully argued that the lower court erred by straying from case law known as the Scarangella defense; the Court of Appeals reversed what happened at the trial and ordered a new one.

The Scarangella defense is named for the case of Scarangella v. Thomas Built Buses, Inc., in which a school-bus driver and her husband, in response to her being struck and injured by a school bus in September 1988, sued the bus manufacturer for negligence, breach of warranty, and products liability. At issue was whether the bus that hit 48-year-old Concetta Scarangella should have been equipped with an alarm to signal that it was backing up.

The bus that struck Scarangella was one of 10 new school buses that Thomas Built sold Huntington Coach Corporation in 1988. At the time, Thomas offered buyers as an optional safety feature a back-up alarm that automatically would sound when a driver shifted the bus into reverse. But Huntington opted not to buy the alarm feature because, according to testimony by Huntington’s president and chief operating officer, the alarm “screams,” and the buses would be parked in a neighborhood whose residents had complained to him of noise pollution.

Scarangella, which ended in a July 1999 Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the bus manufacturer, gave rise to a defense that has been used again and again: If a person makes an informed decision not to buy a safety accessory with a product that can safely be used without it for some applications, the manufacturer cannot later be held liable if the device’s absence is alleged to be a design defect that caused the person’s injury or death.

The Scarangella defense is important for manufacturers of heavy equipment, which is designed to be easily modified to suit many uses and customers. But the case of the front-bucket loader, whose user was crushed to death by a nine-foot tree he was removing from the ground after he opted not to rent accessory parts of the machine that would have formed a protective Plexiglass enclosure around him, diverged from the precedent-setting bus-driver case.

The trial judge accepted the plaintiff’s argument that Scarangella shouldn’t apply to products sold into the rental market and the jury found both the manufacturer and the rental store liable, each for half of $1 million in damages. Though the rental store didn’t appeal the verdict, the manufacturer did. But the Appellate Division Second Department affirmed the trial court outcome with a 10-page decision that changed state law.

It was soon thereafter that the heavy-equipment manufacturer retained Goldberg Segalla, which it had worked with before, setting the stage for Brendan, David, and Neil to induce a May 9, 2019, Court of Appeals decision that “no such ‘rental market’ exclusion from Scarangella … is appropriate.”

Defending the bus manufacturer at the second trial will be David, a trial lawyer who concentrates his practice in handling complex civil actions and class action litigation, and Matthew, a highly experienced trial attorney who focuses his practice on general liability, construction litigation, and product liability.

Goldberg Segalla is recognized as a leader in product liability litigation and risk avoidance. Attorneys in the firm’s Product Liability practice group work together as a single integrated team, with the sole purpose of helping our clients win or avoid product liability disputes. They’ve tried product liability cases on behalf of Fortune 500 companies throughout the United States.

Goldberg Segalla’s Appellate practice groups also showcases what makes the firm different. Much more than a last line of defense, Gold- berg Segalla’s appellate attorneys very often are key partners from the initial stages of litigation, bringing a unique skill set, trial assistance, formidable writing talents, and a global perspective to every matter.

A collaborative effort of Goldberg Segalla’s Product Liability practice group examining the latest practices, emerging developments, and influential court decisions in product liability law. View our most recent issue.