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Drabant v. Fastenal Corp.

March 9, 2009

MARK DRABANT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FASTENAL CORPORATION AND BAUER CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeanne E. Scott, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Bauer Corporation's (Bauer) Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 43) (Bauer Motion). Plaintiff Mark Drabant fell off a stepladder (Ladder) designed and manufactured by Bauer. He brought this personal injury action against Bauer, alleging products liability and negligence.*fn1 Amended Complaint (d/e 32). Bauer asks for summary judgment because Drabant has no evidence that the Ladder was unreasonably dangerous or that Bauer breached the standard of care in designing or manufacturing the Ladder. The Court agrees. The Motion, therefore, is allowed.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

In approximately 1996, Bauer designed and manufactured the Ladder. The Ladder was an extra heavy duty eight-foot stepladder made of fiberglass, steel, and aluminum. The Ladder was a typical stepladder that unfolded into an "A" frame shape, with steps on one side, back support legs on the other side, and two folding cross-bars, called spreader bars or spacer bars, that unfolded horizontally when the Ladder was set up. The Ladder met the ANSI standard for an extra heavy duty ladder and was rated to hold up to 300 pounds.*fn2 The Ladder was purchased by an unidentified person. Ten years later, the Ladder was at the Dominion Power Plant located in Kincaid, Illinois (Plant). At some point in time, an unidentified subcontractor had left the Ladder at the Plant.

On February 5, 2006, Drabant was working at the Plant. Drabant used the Ladder that day. Drabant intended to climb the Ladder to inspect a defective sprinkler head. Drabant set up the Ladder on a steel grate under the sprinkler. Bauer's counsel asked Drabant in his deposition if the grate was wet where Drabant set up the Ladder. Drabant said, "Not in that area." Response to Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 45) (Drabant Response), Exhibit A, Deposition of Mark Drabant (Drabant Deposition), at 32. Drabant explained, "The grating was wet right to the north of it [the sprinkler head] as it was spraying back that way." Id. Drabant then started to climb the Ladder. Drabant weighed 230 pounds at that time. According to Drabant, when he reached the fifth step he heard a loud pop. Drabant stated that the Ladder became unstable and he fell and suffered injuries. After the fall, Drabant noticed that one of the spreader bars was separated from the back support leg. The spreader bar had been attached with a steel roll-clinched rivet (Rivet). The Rivet had become unclinched and allowed the spreader bar to become detached from the back support leg. Drabant then brought this action against Bauer.

In discovery, Drabant produced an expert report by Christopher Hahin, P.E. Hahin opined that the Rivet was not appropriate for the task of holding the spreader bar in place. Hahin opined that the Rivet was not strong enough to withstand the stresses placed on it when the Ladder was used on slippery, or low friction surfaces. Drabant Response, Exhibit H, Failure of Horizontal Spreader Bar Rivets in a Bauer Corp. Type IA Industrial Ladder, Revised Investigative Report, dated September, 2008 (Hahin Report), at 11. The level of friction is measured by a "coefficient of friction" between the two surfaces that are touching, in this case between the feet of the Ladder and the steel grate. A lower coefficient of friction means that there is less friction between the two surfaces. See Id., at 11, 16-17.

The amount of friction between the Ladder's feet and the floor on which the Ladder was erected would affect the amount of force applied to the Rivet. As a person would climb the Ladder, he or she would push the Ladder's feet down and create friction between the Ladder's feet and the floor, and this friction would tend to keep the feet in place. If the level of friction between the feet and the floor was low, however, the front and back feet of the Ladder would not grip the floor as much. As a result, the feet (and, hence, the front steps and the back support legs of the Ladder) would tend to slide apart as a person would climb the Ladder. See Id., at 11. The spreader bars resist the tendency of the front steps and back support legs to slide away from each other on low friction surfaces. This resistence places stress on the rivets that fasten the spreader bars to the legs.

Hahin opined when the Ladder was used on surfaces on which the coefficient of friction was .175 or below, the rivets used by Bauer were not strong enough to withstand the stress and would wear prematurely and eventually fail. Id., at 24. Hahin selected .175 because the ANSI standard for extra heavy duty ladders is based on a minimum coefficient of friction of .175 between the surface and the feet of the ladder. Id., at 16. Hahin opined that a solid steel bolt and nut should be substituted for the Rivet. He opined that a steel bolt could withstand the stress that could occur when the Ladder was used on low friction surfaces. Id., at 25-26. Hahin stated in his deposition that he found no ladders on the market that used a bolt to attach spreader bars. Bauer Motion, Exhibit B, Deposition of Christopher Hahin (Hahin Deposition), at 131-32, 137. Rather, Hahin agreed that the rivet design used by Bauer was the common and pervasive design in the ladder industry. Id., at 92-95.

With respect to the incident on February 5, 2006, Hahin opined that the Rivet was already worn from prior use. Hahin assumed that the steel grate on which Drabant set up the Ladder was wet and slippery. He assumed that the friction between the Ladder's feet and the wet grate was negligible. Hahin Report, at 11. Thus, as Drabant climbed the Ladder, Hahin opined that the Ladder's feet did not grip the grate, but started to slide away from each other, putting stress on the Rivet. Hahin opined that when Drabant climbed to the fifth step, the worn Rivet finally failed, the Ladder became unstable, and Drabant fell. Id., at 26-27.

In his deposition, Hahin explained that the Ladder met the ANSI standard for extra heavy duty ladders, but he believed that the ANSI standard assumed a minimum coefficient of friction during use that was too high. Hahin thought the standard should assume that such ladders would be used on more slippery surfaces. He stated that, if he could re-write the standard, he would reduce the minimum coefficient of friction in the standard from .175 to .05. Hahin Deposition, at 139-42.

Bauer's counsel and Hahin had the following colloquy in which counsel asked Hahin whether he believed to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the Ladder was unreasonably dangerous:

Q: Having heard your statement here, would it be fair to say that while you have opinions as to why this rivet failed, you have no opinions that you are prepared to assert to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty as to whether or not the ladder in design was unreasonably dangerous and defective?

A: I believe that the ladder manufacturer should have known what these forces were in a variety of environments. That's what I'm stating. I'm not, I'm not saying their product is unreasonably dangerous, but what I am saying is in certain ...


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