Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Rules Product Manufacturer Satisfied its Duty to Purchaser Under Optional Equipment Doctrine

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In Parks v. Ariens Company (No. 15-2664), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a District Court ruling granting summary judgment to a lawnmower manufacturer, finding that the manufacturer had satisfied its duty to the purchaser by offering an optional roll over protection system (ROPS) which would have prevented the accident that formed the basis for the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The plaintiff’s husband died from asphyxiation after the lawnmower he purchased from an authorized dealer rolled over on top of him as he was operating the mower on his property.  At the time the decedent purchased the lawnmower, the manufacturer offered a ROPS system, which consisted of a roll bar and a seatbelt, and recommended the use of the ROPS when operating the mower on a slope.

The mower was originally sold without the ROPS to the dealer, who indicated that he preferred to leave the decision up to his customer whether or not to purchase the optional ROPS.  The dealer testified at his deposition that he recalled discussing the handling of the mower with the decedent, as well as the terrain on which he planned to operate the mower.  In addition, the dealer’s standard practice was to discuss the availability and safety features of the ROPS with his customers, and would have done this with each of his customers, as it was required by his insurance policy. The plaintiff alleged that the manufacturer was negligent for not including the ROPS on each mower of this particular model it sold.

In adopting factors for applying the optional equipment doctrine as set out by the New York Court of Appeals in Scarangella v. Thomas Built Buses, Inc., 93 N.Y.2d 655, 695 N.Y.S.2d 520, 717 N.E.2d 679 (1999) , the Eighth District found that the decedent was thoroughly knowledgeable regarding the mower and its use and was actually aware that the ROPS was available; that there are normal circumstances where the mower was not unreasonably dangerous without the ROPS, specifically when used on level ground; and that decedent was in a position to balance the benefits and risks of not having a ROPS for purposes of his planned use of the mower, as he knew the layout of his property, and the portions he planned to mow. As such, the manufacturer fulfilled any duty it owed decedent when it provided the ROPS as an optional feature, and ensured that he had the information available to make an informed choice.

While the optional equipment doctrine has not been adopted nationwide on a state level, product manufacturers and their counsel should be aware of the factors the federal courts have adopted and implement practices and procedures to instruct and inform their customers of the availability of any optional safety features.

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