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Sixth Circuit Reverses Judgment for Defendants in Product Liability Case Involving Hunting Equipment

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The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a lower federal district court decision that had absolved the defendants of any liability for distributing allegedly defective polypropylene ratchet straps that catastrophically failed when used by the plaintiff to secure a tree stand while hunting. The lower court, in the case of Bradley v. Ameristep, Inc., ruled that the plaintiff's proposed expert, who would testify that the straps sold by the defendant were unsafe, did not have sufficient knowledge in the relevant type of materials to be useful for the jury, so the case was closed in favor of the defendants.

The Defendant’s Ratchet Straps Failed After Being Used for Less Than One Season

The plaintiff purchased ratchet straps from the defendant in 2008 to use as replacements in a tree stand that he had owned and used for several years previously. The plaintiff used the straps to secure a tree stand for about two months in the fall of 2008 without issue. After the 2008 hunting season, the plaintiff stored the straps for two years, next using the straps in the spring of 2011 to set up his tree stand. In the fall of 2011, within minutes of ascending to his tree stand to begin hunting, the ratchet straps failed, sending the plaintiff and the tree stand to the ground and causing injuries to the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed suit against the defendant on many grounds, alleging defective design, improper instructions, and failure to warn by the defendant as being the cause of the plaintiff's injuries.

The District Court Does Not Accept the Plaintiff's Expert

In the early stages of the lawsuit, the plaintiff retained an expert to give testimony about the safety issues with the straps that were made by the defendant. The proposed witness was an experienced engineer and materials scientist, who has taught at universities and worked for government agencies, and he appeared to have a specialized knowledge in materials failure analysis. Although the district court had the expert’s qualifications on hand, they entered a ruling that his knowledge of polypropylene polymers and webbing was sparse and would not help the jury. The district court further ruled that the plaintiff needed an expert to make a product liability claim and could not go forward with their proposed expert, finding for the defendants on all claims without a trial or jury.

The Sixth Circuit Sets the Record Straight

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit was critical of the district court's interpretation and application of the relevant law. The Court first emphasized that the expert requirements should be liberally construed at this stage of the proceedings, and the plaintiff's proposed expert was more than qualified to assess the factors that led to the failure of the defendant's product. The Court went on to rule that even without the expert, the plaintiff's case should have been permitted to proceed based on the consumer expectation test, which allows plaintiffs to sue for defective products without an expert, if they can prove that the product did not meet ordinary expectations as to its safety under the circumstances presented. The Sixth Circuit reversed the lower judgment on two separate, independent grounds, and the plaintiff will now likely be able to have his case heard by a jury.

Illinois Product Liability Law

In Illinois, product liability actions may or may not require the plaintiff to present expert testimony, depending on the type of product that is alleged to have been defective. There is no easy test to determine if an expert is needed to make a product liability claim or not, but the decisions generally come down to the complexity of the product at issue. If a defective product is simple enough for the average person to understand how it works, an expert is generally not needed. When the allegedly defective product is complex and technical, an expert is usually needed. Most product liability cases are for products that lie somewhere in the middle, and an Illinois product liability lawsuit may or may not require an expert to make it to trial. It is best for victims of defective products to consult an Illinois accident attorney right away to prevent missing out on a claim.

Are you the Victim of a Defective Product?

If you know a loved one has been injured or killed by a defective or malfunctioning product, the experienced Illinois product liability attorneys at Cavanagh Law Group can fight to hold the responsible parties accountable for your injuries. We have a detailed knowledge of the complexities of Illinois products liability law, and we know some of the most experienced experts in every field that we can use if your case requires expert testimony. At Cavanagh Law Group we represent clients in most personal injury and wrongful death cases, including product liability.

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