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In-House Machines and Product Liability

By: Meredith Ullman | 4/25/2011 | Category: Workers Compensation-Product Liability
For employers who build their own machines, should there be concern over a product liability lawsuit if an employee is hurt using the machine? For example, let’s say the employer is a shoe manufacturer and develops a unique machine to help with the soling of shoes. The machine is built in-house by the employer and used in the production of their product. The machine malfunctions and injures an employee. The employee, in addition to a workers’ compensation claim, also brings a product liability action against the employer. Is the product liability lawsuit a viable action? The simple answer is "no."

Generally speaking, the only method of recovery for an injured worker against an employer is through the workers’ compensation system. The Ohio system denies an injured worker the right to damages at common law or by statute for an injury incurred while the employer was compliant.

The main exceptions to this rule are intentional torts and the "Dual-Capacity Doctrine." The Dual-Capacity Doctrine allows an injured worker to bring a negligence lawsuit against their employer for violation of a duty that arises from a relationship unrelated to the employment relationship.

Employees have attempted to allege product liability under the Dual-Capacity Doctrine when they have been injured using a machine built by their employer. Employees have been unsuccessful in such actions. As a general rule put forth by Ohio courts, "it is universally held that where an employer designs and manufactures a product for use by its employees and not for sale to the general public, an employee injured while using that product within the scope of his employment may not maintain a products liability action against his employer under the dual-capacity doctrine on the theory that the employer assumed an independent role as manufacturer."

The Supreme Court of Ohio further expanded the rule to include products that are mass marketed to the general public, so long as the product was being used for employment purposes. The case wherein the Supreme Court of Ohio made this decision involved an injured worker who was driving a company vehicle for Firestone with Firestone tires. A tire blew out and the employee suffered injuries. The employee alleged, among other theories, product liability based upon the defective tire. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that even if the product was for sale to the general public, if the product was also being used for the company’s own use, and the product was being used within the scope of the employee’s employment, the employee still could not bring a product liability action against his employer under the Dual-Capacity Doctrine. The tires were furnished to the injured worker solely as an employee and not as a member of the consuming public.

Based upon these decisions, an employer that builds a machine in-house for use in production should not be concerned over the possibility of a product liability claim.

Please do not hesitate to contact Meredith Ullman or any of the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at RBS with questions or concerns regarding workers’ compensation injuries involving in-house machines.

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