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Pommier v. Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corp.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

February 28, 2018

KARRIE POMMIER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JUNGHEINRICH LIFT TRUCK CORPORATION, MULTITON MIC CORPORATION, and CALUMET LIFT TRUCK CORPORATION, Defendants Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corporation and Multiton Mic Corporation, Defendants-Appellees, EMD Millipore Corporation, Third-Party Defendant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 21st Judicial Circuit, Kankakee County, Illinois. Circuit No. 12-L-180, Honorable Adrienne W. Albrecht, Judge, Presiding.

          SCHMIDT JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices McDade and Wright concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          SCHMIDT JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 Plaintiff, Karrie Pommier, filed this lawsuit after she allegedly injured her right shoulder while operating an electric pallet jack at work on October 29, 2009. Her complaint alleged strict products liability and negligence claims against Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corporation (JLT), Multiton Mic Corporation (MMC), and Calumet Lift Truck Service Company, Inc. (Calumet). The trial court granted Calumet summary judgment on the strict liability claim but denied Calumet summary judgment on the negligence claim. The court later granted JLT and MMC (defendants) summary judgment on all claims. Plaintiff appeals this judgment. We affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 On September 29, 2011, plaintiff filed her complaint in Cook County. In October 2012, the court transferred the case to Kankakee County pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 187 (eff. Aug. 1, 1986). The complaint alleged that plaintiff worked as a manufacturing operator at EMD Millipore Corporation (Millipore). On October 29, 2009, she injured her right shoulder while operating a Multiton ELE 45 electric pallet jack for Millipore.

         ¶ 4 The complaint alleged negligence and strict products liability claims against defendants. Count I alleged that defendants "carelessly and negligently developed, designed, manufactured, distributed, and sold [the jack] such that it could suddenly stop functioning; *** without conducting or obtaining adequate research that the control circuitry and machine was generally recognized as safe; [and] *** when it knew or should have known that the particular product may cause injury to its operators." Count II alleged that the jack "was in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous for its intended use" because "the device spontaneously malfunctioned without warning; there were inadequate power controls for movement of the device; the controls permitted unexpected, sudden application of the brakes during movement; [and] the emergency stopping protocol engaged in unplanned or unexpected situations."

         ¶ 5 I. The Pallet Jack's Alleged Defect

         ¶ 6 When they examined the jack, experts for both sides found that someone previously inverted the jack's brake cam. Neither expert found any other defect. The jack's braking system employs three primary parts: the tiller handle, the cam, and the roller switch. Operators use the tiller handle to steer and drive the jack. The cam is mounted at the base of the tiller. It rotates over the fixed roller switch as the operator raises or lowers the tiller. Contact between the cam and the roller switch activates the brakes.

         ¶ 7 The cam is designed to contact the roller switch when the tiller reaches certain angles. Based on the jack's design, an operator cannot physically position the tiller in any range between 0 degrees (parallel to the ground) and 15 degrees. The designed lower braking range is between 15 degrees and 34 degrees-when an operator lowers the tiller to angles in this range, the cam should contact the roller switch and activate the brakes. The designed upper braking range is between 80 degrees and 90 degrees. The "F arc" should be between 34 degrees and 80 degrees. When an operator positions the tiller within the "F arc, " the brakes should not activate.

         ¶ 8 The cam screws onto a stud affixed to the tiller. A nut in the center of the cam holds it in place. If someone tightens the nut without holding the cam in place, the cam may rotate with the nut as it is secured. Properly installed, the cam should sit horizontally while the tiller rests at a 39-degree angle.

         ¶ 9 During her deposition, plaintiff testified that she operated the jack on October 29, 2009. She walked in front of the jack and held onto the tiller handle with her right hand. Her right arm extended behind her; her hand and the tiller handle were positioned just above her waist. As plaintiff continued to move forward, the jack stopped and caused "a pulling in her shoulder." She stated: "If you would walk it would- it would automatically stop on you. You could be walking and it would just-it would just stop and it would jerk you."

         ¶ 10 Plaintiff's expert, Daniel Pacheco, opined that the inverted cam caused plaintiff's injury "and similar [prior] incidents" that plaintiff's coworkers reported. He opined that defendants negligently designed the jack's brake system by failing to preclude the possibility of someone inverting the cam. He offered a "technologically and economically feasible" alternative lock nut design that would require a key to adjust the cam. He also opined that defendants should have included on-machine instructions with embedded warnings that explained how to properly position the cam.

         ¶ 11 Pacheco concluded that the cam's inverted position "had the effect of causing the brake to be applied when the steering tiller was higher in the lower braking range than it should have been." However, his findings from examining the jack refuted this conclusion. Pacheco found that the tiller's travel arc-the total range in which an operator could physically position the tiller-totaled 74.2 degrees (i.e., any range between 15 to 15.8 degrees and 89.2 to 90 degrees). He also found that the lower brake arc totaled 10 degrees. Because an operator cannot physically position the tiller below a 15-degree angle, Pacheco's lower brake arc ranged from 15 degrees to 25 degrees. Finally, Pacheco concluded that the upper brake arc totaled just 1.5 degrees (approximately 88 to 90 degrees). According to Pacheco's findings, the inverted cam could not activate the brakes unless ...


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