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Long v. Quad Power Products, LLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

March 20, 2015

DANNY LONG ET AL.
v.
QUAD POWER PRODUCTS, LLC ET AL.

Session Date: November 25, 2014

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamilton County No. 03C1789 W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth, Judge

This is a product liability action arising from a workplace injury to the plaintiff, Danny Long. Mr. Long's left arm was severely injured on October 30, 2002, when a reducing mechanism attached to a ball valve he was using suddenly broke, causing a release of pressurized air and water onto his left arm and shoulder. Following lengthy medical treatment and multiple surgeries, Mr. Long's left arm was amputated. On October 30, 2003, Mr. Long and his wife filed a complaint alleging, inter alia, negligence in the design, manufacture, assembly, distribution, and sale of the ball valve, as well as failure to warn of potential danger to users of the ball valve and failure to include with the ball valve adequate safety information relative to its use. The Longs named four companies as defendants allegedly responsible for the design, manufacture, assembly, distribution, and sale of the ball valve. Mr. Long's employer was subsequently joined as an intervening plaintiff. Through the course of the proceedings, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of two of the defendant companies on the basis of lack of personal jurisdiction. These defendants are not parties to this appeal. Mr. Long died on December 22, 2006, and Ms. Long thereafter by substitution assumed his interest in this action. In May 2010, the trial court granted Ms. Long and the intervening plaintiff permission to amend the complaint to reassert a strict liability claim against the two remaining defendant companies based upon the sole theory of failure to warn. In May 2013, the two remaining defendants subsequently filed separate motions for summary judgment. Finding that no genuine issue of material fact existed that could establish strict liability based upon failure to warn, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of both remaining defendants. Ms. Long and the employer appeal.[1] Discerning no error, we affirm.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court

Stephen T. Greer, Dunlap, Tennessee, for the appellant, Geraldine Long, and Jeffrey L. Cleary, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Alstom Power, Inc.

Thomas E. LeQuire and Lance W. Thompson, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee, Southern Fluidpower, Inc.

Thomas R. Frierson, II, delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.

OPINION

THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff Danny Long was fifty-three years old when the accident resulting in severe injury to his left arm occurred on October 30, 2002. He was employed as a boilermaker at the Chattanooga location of Alstom Power, Inc., ("Alstom"), which manufactures tubular products, including water wall panels and super heaters for the power generation industry. While pressure testing a product, Mr. Long attempted to turn a ball valve to release pressure on a super heater test panel through which highly pressurized water was moving. The test panel itself had been designed and assembled by Alstom employees. When the ball valve would not turn, Mr. Long used an extension or "cheater" bar to continue his attempt to relieve pressure. The reducing mechanism, a three-eighth-inch carbon nipple connected to the valve, then broke, causing water under extremely high pressure, 6, 975 pound-force per square inch ("psi"), to release onto Mr. Long's left arm and shoulder. Mr. Long required immediate, emergency medical care and underwent multiple surgeries, culminating in the amputation of his left arm.

One year following the accident, on October 30, 2003, Mr. Long and his wife, Geraldine Long, filed a complaint pursuant to the Tennessee Products Liability Act of 1978 ("TPLA"). See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 29-28-101 through 108 (2012). The Longs alleged negligence in the design, manufacture, assembly, distribution, and sale of the ball valve; breach of implied and express warranties; failure to warn; failure to exercise due care; and failure to include with the ball valve adequate safety information relative to its use. The Longs named four defendants. The ball valve had been manufactured by defendant Pister Kugelhӓhne GmbH ("Pister"), a corporation based in Germany. Pister distributed its products in the United States through defendant Pressure Components, Inc. ("PCI"), a corporation based in Ohio. Alstom purchased the ball valve in question by ordering it, using the valve's PCI catalog number, from defendant Southern Fluidpower, Inc. ("Southern"), a corporation based in Tennessee. PCI thus distributed the ball valve through Southern, which in turn sold it to Alstom.

The fourth defendant, Quad Power Products, LLC ("Quad Power"), based in Missouri, was granted summary judgment by the trial court in November 2005 without objection from the other parties.[2] Quad Power had asserted in its motion for summary judgment that although it was a distributor of PCI products, it had never distributed products in Tennessee, had no contacts in Tennessee, and had never dealt with Alstom. Pister, the manufacturer based in Germany, was subsequently granted summary judgment by the trial court in November 2009 on the basis of lack of personal jurisdiction. The court found that Pister did "not meet the minimum contact standard set forth in the Tennessee Long Arm Statute and applicable case law." See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 20-2-214(a)(6) (2009), 20-2-225 (2009); State v. NV Sumatra Tobacco Trading Co., 403 S.W.3d 726, 740-41 (Tenn. 2013) (analyzing the minimum-contact standard in reinstating the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of a foreign manufacturer). The two remaining defendants at the time Ms. Long and Alstom filed this appeal were PCI and Southern. During the pendency of this appeal, Ms. Long and Alstom voluntarily dismissed this appeal as to PCI. Southern is therefore the only remaining defendant involved in this appeal.

Southern filed an answer to the original complaint on December 10, 2003, asserting several affirmative defenses, including, as relevant to this appeal, that Mr. Long's negligence and/or the negligence of another actor caused Mr. Long's injury. The trial court granted Alstom permission to file an intervening petition on May 12, 2004, asserting a right of subrogation for Workers' Compensation benefits it had paid or would pay to Mr. Long.

On December 19, 2005, Southern filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that although it was a distributor of PCI products, it did not distribute the ball valve in question to Alstom. Alstom filed a response on February 1, 2006, presenting "recently discovered documents, " including a purchase release document and affidavit showing that Alstom's director of supply management had in fact purchased the ball valve from Southern. Southern subsequently withdrew its initial motion for summary judgment on March 23, 2006.

Two months later on May 12, 2006, Southern filed a second motion for summary judgment, asserting, inter alia, that while it distributed Pister ball valves for PCI, the valves were only in Southern's possession for approximately twenty-four hours and were not assembled, designed, manufactured, or altered by Southern. The trial court granted this motion on November 15, 2006, upon the court's finding that no opposing brief had been filed for more than six months and that the motion was well taken.

Mr. Long died on December 22, 2006. Pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 25.01, Ms. Long filed a suggestion of death in July 2007. The trial court accordingly entered an order on August 27, 2007, reviving this action and substituting Ms. Long for and on behalf of Mr. Long pursuant to Rule 25.01 and Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 20-5-102 (2009).

As to Southern, Ms. Long filed a motion on January 14, 2010, requesting that the trial court revise its previous order granting summary judgment due to the court's intervening grant of summary judgment to Pister. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-106(4) (2012) (providing in relevant part that a product liability action shall not be commenced or maintained against "any seller, other than the manufacturer, unless . . . [t]he manufacturer or distributor of the product or part in question is not subject to service of process in this state and the long-arm statutes of Tennessee do not serve as the basis for obtaining service of process . . . ."). Upon consideration of this motion, the trial court reinstated Ms. Long's claim against Southern as to strict liability only in an order entered February 16, 2010. Southern responded by filing a motion for interlocutory appeal of the trial court's decision to reinstate the strict liability claim. The trial court denied this motion in an order entered April 20, 2010. Upon a subsequent motion filed by Ms. Long, the trial court granted her permission in an order entered May 19, 2010, to amend the complaint to state that Southern is a "seller" pursuant to the TPLA. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-106.

On May 3, 2013, Southern filed a motion for summary judgment, to which Ms. Long and Alstom responded. The trial court, finding that no genuine question of material fact existed to support Ms. Long's claim that Southern's failure to warn had caused Mr. Long's accident, entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order granting summary judgment in favor of Southern on September 17, 2013. Ms. Long and Alstom timely appealed.

II. Issues Presented

Ms. Long and Alstom present four issues on appeal, which we have restated slightly:

1. Whether the trial court erred by finding that Southern had not failed to properly warn Mr. Long and Alstom concerning the pressure capacity of the valve at issue.
2. Whether the trial court erred by finding that Southern had not failed to properly warn Mr. Long and Alstom concerning the proper usage of the valve at issue.
3. Whether the trial court erred by discounting the testimony of Ms. Long's and Alstom's expert witness.
4. Whether the trial court erred by finding the actions of Alstom, as Mr. Long's employer, to be an intervening cause of Mr. Long's injury.

III. Standard of Review

Our Supreme Court has succinctly described the applicable[3] standard of review of a trial court's grant of summary judgment:

A summary judgment is appropriate only when the moving party can demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04; Hannan v. Alltel Publ'g Co., 270 S.W.3d 1, 5 (Tenn. 2008). When ruling on a summary judgment motion, the trial court must accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true and resolve any doubts concerning the existence of a genuine issue of material fact in favor of the nonmoving party. Shipley v. Williams, 350 S.W.3d 527, 536 (Tenn. 2011) (quoting Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry., 271 S.W.3d 76, 84 (Tenn. 2008)). "A grant of summary judgment is appropriate only when the facts and the reasonable inferences from those facts would permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion." Giggers v. Memphis Hous. Auth., 277 S.W.3d 359, 364 (Tenn. 2009) (citing Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 89 (Tenn. 2000)). "The granting or denying of a motion for summary judgment is a matter of law, and our standard of review is de novo with no presumption of correctness." Kinsler v. Berkline, LLC, 320 S.W.3d 796, 799 (Tenn. 2010).

Dick Broad. Co. of Tenn. v. Oak Ridge FM, Inc., 395 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tenn. 2013). Pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04, the trial court must "state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion" for summary judgment, and our Supreme Court has recently instructed that the trial court must state these grounds "before it invites or requests the prevailing party to draft a proposed order." Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., 439 S.W.3d 303, 316 (Tenn. 2014).

IV. Failure to Warn Claim Pursuant to TPLA

It is undisputed that Ms. Long's only remaining claim at the time the instant motion for summary judgment was heard was the allegation that Southern failed to provide adequate warning regarding improper use of the ball valve that could render it a dangerous product. Ms. Long specifically alleges that Alstom, and thus Mr. Long as the end user, should have been warned regarding the danger of using the ball valve (1) with a higher level of pressure than it had been designed to withstand and (2) in a system conveying water due to the risk of corrosion. Southern contends that the trial court properly found that no genuine issue of material fact existed that would support a finding that Southern's failure to warn was the cause in fact of Mr. Long's injury. We agree with Southern on this issue.

Our analysis begins with a review of the nature of Ms. Long's cause of action. Subsection 29-28-102(6) of the TPLA defines a product liability action as follows:

(6) "Product liability action" for purposes of this chapter includes all actions brought for or on account of personal injury, death or property damage caused by or resulting from the manufacture, construction, design, formula, preparation, assembly, testing, service, warning, instruction, marketing, packaging or labeling of any product. "Product liability action" includes, but is not limited to, all actions based upon the following theories: strict liability in tort; negligence; breach of warranty, express or implied; breach of or failure to discharge a duty to warn or instruct, whether negligent, or innocent; ...

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