Farm Equipment Dealer Wins Motion for Summary Judgment

U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, July 29, 2020

Plaintiff John Pruitt filed this asbestos lawsuit alleging he contracted mesothelioma from occupational exposure to asbestos. The plaintiff served in the Navy from September 1959 to April 1962. Upon his discharge from the Navy, he worked at Schroer, a John Deere farm equipment dealership in Valdosta, Georgia, from 1963 to 1974. He initially worked as a runner, delivering and picking up parts such as brakes, clutches, and paint decals. In 1966, he started working as a parts manager and was tasked with finding and ordering parts, such as brakes and clutches that were installed by mechanics at Schroer. The plaintiff never personally worked on the equipment.

Various defendants filed motions for summary judgment. The plaintiff did not oppose the motions of Taco, Inc., Terex USA, LLC and Trane U.S. Inc and their motions were subsequently granted. The plaintiff opposed the motion of Deere & Company on counts of strict liability, aftermarket replacement parts, false representation and punitive damages.

“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuinely disputed material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The burden then shifts to the non-movant to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue for trial, and the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. ZenithRadio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989); Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). 

Here, the parties were in agreement that Georgia law applied to the plaintiff’s claims related to Schroer. According to O.C.G.A. § 51-1-11, strict liability for allegedly defective products is limited to the manufacturer of personal property sold as new property. An entity may be a manufacturer if it satisfies one of three alternative definitions: “a) an actual manufacturer or designer of the product; or b) a manufacturer of a component part which failed and caused the plaintiff injury; or c) an assembler of component parts who then sells the item as a single product under its own trade name.” Freeman v. United Cities Propane Gas of Georgia, Inc., 807 F. Supp. 1533, 1539 (M.D. Ga. 1992). Since Deere was not the actual manufacturer of any brakes or clutches that it sold or supplied as genuine replacement parts for any model of Deere tractor and Deere was not involved with the design, manufacture, or assembly of replacement parts, which were packaged and relabeled with its name, Deere is not a manufacturer under O.C.G.A. § 51-1-11. Accordingly, the court granted Deere’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s strict liability claim as to replacement parts.

Additionally, the strict liability claim regarding Deere original equipment parts is time-barred by Georgia’s statute of repose. O.C.G.A. § 51-1-11(b)(2) states that “[n]o action shall be commenced pursuant to this subsection with respect to an injury after ten years from the date of the first sale for use or consumption of the personal property causing or otherwise bringing about the injury.” The plaintiff stopped working for Schroer in 1974. More than ten years passed before the present action was filed on July 26, 2018. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s strict liability claim regarding Deere original equipment parts is time-barred.

The plaintiff’s claim of false representation under the Restatement of Torts Section 402-B also fails. Georgia has not adopted this provision of the Restatement. Furthermore, there is no evidence in the record that Deere made a representation that Plaintiff relied upon that resulted in his injury.

Finally, the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages is also not successful. Under Georgia law, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded only in such tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. The court found no such evidence of willful misconduct or wantonness as to Deere.

Therefore, the court granted all four motions for summary judgment.