Stuhlmacher v. Home Depot – Ladder Defect Case to be Retried

The injury at the center of the recently-decided Stuhlmacher v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. didn’t occur around the holidays. However, it is relevant because it involves an allegedly defective ladder. The fact is, both before and for weeks after the holiday season, people climb ladders to decorate and then “un-decorate” their homes.

It’s a fact that ladders can tip regardless of their condition if they aren’t used properly. However, when a ladder collapses or otherwise fails when being used properly as intended or anticipated, this may be grounds for a product liability lawsuit.

This was the case in Stuhlmacher.

Generally in order to succeed in a product liability lawsuit, one must prove not only he or she suffered injuries, but that those injuries were proximately caused by a product that was either defective or lacked proper instructions or warnings. One must also show the product was being used more or less in the manner intended.

Here, according to court records, the issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was that of causation, as posited by a plaintiff expert witness, whose testimony was stricken from the record by the trial judge. Without that testimony, causation could not be proven. The federal appellate court reversed, finding the testimony qualified as relevant under Civil Rule 702, so long as it helps the jury in determining any fact at issue in the case. Specifically, expert witnesses are allowed to put forth alternative models to explain their conclusions, the court ruled.

Our Montgomery product injury lawyers note the facts at hand: Plaintiff was a millwright technician building a cabin for his parents in Indiana. Days earlier, his parents bought a fiberglass step ladder from a large chain home improvement store for their son to work on the roof. While using the ladder the very first time, the ladder fell. Plaintiff grabbed hold of a rafter momentarily, but later fell on the right front rail of the ladder, hitting his groin. His shoulder was injured, but the greater injury was to his genitalia, which was later diagnosed as being permanently damaged. He is no longer able to engage in sexual intercourse.

After the fall, plaintiff recognized the ladder had come apart on the right rear side. Some of the diagonal step braces were bent. Plaintiff and his wife filed a lawsuit against the seller of the ladder, as well as the manufacturer. According to the complaint, the rivets of the ladder failed, resulting in collapse.

In support of their theory, plaintiffs presented expert witness testimony from an accident reconstructionist with a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. At trial, he testified the rivets were overly-tightened during the manufacturing process, which significantly weakened the ladder’s integrity and increased the likelihood it would fail and cause injury.

He also stated the fall was likely caused when plaintiff sensed weakness and involuntarily shifted his weight to compensate. However, the judge, after hearing this testimony at trial, ruled this assertion of causation didn’t match plaintiff’s own in that plaintiff never testified the ladder in any way shook or became unstable.

The testimony was struck and thus causation could not be proven and the trial was over.

However, on appeal, plaintiffs argued this finding as a matter of law was improper by the judge, as it was a matter of fact for consideration by jurors. The Seventh Circuit agreed, reversing the earlier ruling and ordering a new trial.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates there are more than 15,000 holiday decorating-related injuries and November and December. There is less attention given to the “un-decorating,” but given the severity of possible outcomes – especially falls from ladders – it’s important for people to use extreme care when taking down lights, inflatable characters and Christmas tree decorations. If injury does result from what you suspect may be a defective ladder or other equipment, please contact our offices immediately.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:
Stuhlmacher v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., Dec. 17, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:
Robert Bosch LLC v. Smith – Ala. Supreme Court Weighs Product Liability Lawsuit, Dec. 20, 2014, Montgomery Injury Lawyer Blog

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