How the Shopsmith Mark V changed liability law

I remember a lawyer who attended one of my classes back in the 1990's who told me that he read an interesting case that involved the Shopsmith Mark V and that the resulting verdict changed liability law forever. In the lawsuit known as Greenman v. Yuba Power Products Mr. William Greenman was the plaintiff who brought an action for damages against the retailer and the manufacturer of the Shopsmith Mark V in those days; Yuba Power Products.

Here are some of the details of the suit, with some comments and commentary thrown in.

He saw a Shopsmith demonstrated by the retailer and studied a brochure prepared by the manufacturer. He decided he wanted a Shopsmith for his home workshop, and his wife bought and gave him one for Christmas in 1955. In 1957 he bought the necessary parts to use the tool as a lathe for turning a large piece of wood he wished to make into a chalice. (The chalice from the palace holds the brew that is true, but that's another story) After he had worked on the piece of wood several times without difficulty, it suddenly flew out of the machine and struck him on the forehead (aka: Bonked him on the knoggin'), inflicting what he d
escribed as serious injuries. Now here's where it gets interesting. About 10 1/2 months later, he gave the retailer and the manufacturer written notice of claimed breaches of warranties and filed a complaint against them alleging such breaches and negligence.

After a trial before a jury, the court ruled that there was no evidence that the retailer was negligent or had breached any express warranty and that the manufacturer was not liable for the breach of any implied warranty. Accordingly, it submitted to the jury only the cause of action alleging breach of implied warranties against the retailer and the causes of action alleging negligence and breach of express warranties against the manufacturer. The jury returned a verdict for the retailer against plaintiff and for plaintiff against Yuba Power Products in the amount of $65,000. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be $474,975.57 in today's dollars.) The trial court denied the manufacturer's motion for a new trial and entered judgment on the verdict. The manufacturer and plaintiff appeal. The plaintiff then seeks a reversal of the part of the judgment in favor of the retailer, however, only in the event that the part of the judgment against the manufacturer is reversed.

The plaintiff introduced substantial evidence that his injuries were caused by defective design and construction of the Shopsmith. His expert witnesses testified that inadequate set screws were used to hold parts of the machine together so that normal vibration caused the tailstock of the lathe to move away from the piece of wood being turned permitting it to fly out of the lathe. They also testified that there were other more positive ways of fastening the parts of the machine together, the use of which would have prevented the accident. The jury could therefore reasonably have concluded that the manufacturer negligently constructed the Shopsmith. The jury could also reasonably have concluded that statements in the manufacturer's brochure were untrue, that they constituted express warranties, and that plaintiff's injuries were caused by their breach.

Now, this is where I got a bit confused. How could loose set screws possibly cause the tailstock to move away from the headstock? That's when I remembered that the way tubes are held in place by set screws which in the early days were inserted through the base of the Mark V while it is in the vertical drill press position. These set screws are now visible and accessible from the top of the unit, but that change wasn't made until the 1990's. If THESE set screws were to become loose then the way tubes would pull away from the base, and in actuality the headstock would move away from the tailstock. (See figure 14 from the Mark V patent, and parts 18 and 38 are what I believe moved. The set screws are not shown.)

The manufacturer contended that plaintiff did not give it notice of breach of warranty within a reasonable time and that therefore his cause of action for breach of warranty is barred by section 1769 of the Civil Code. Since it cannot be determined whether the verdict against it was based on the negligence or warranty cause of action or both, the manufacturer concludes that the error in presenting the warranty cause of action to the jury was prejudicial.

Section 1769 of the Civil Code provides: "In the absence of express or implied agreement of the parties, acceptance of the goods by the buyer shall not discharge the seller from liability in damages or other legal remedy for breach of any promise or warranty in the contract to sell or the sale. But, if, after acceptance of the goods, the buyer fails to give notice to the seller of the breach of any promise or warranty within a reasonable time after the buyer knows, or ought to know of such breach, the seller shall not be liable therefor."

In the end the plaintiff was able to plead and prove that an express warranty existed because he read and relied on the representations of the Shopsmith's ruggedness contained in the manufacturer's brochure. Implicit in the machine's presence on the market, however, was a representation that it would safely do the jobs for which it was built. Under these circumstances, it should not be controlling whether plaintiff selected the machine because of the statements in the brochure, or because of the machine's own appearance of excellence that belied the defect lurking beneath the surface, or because he merely assumed that it would safely do the jobs it was built to do. It should not be controlling whether the details of the sales from manufacturer to retailer and from retailer to plaintiff's wife were such that one or more of the implied warranties of the sales act arose. (Civ. Code, § 1735.) "The remedies of injured consumers ought not to be made to depend upon the intricacies of the law of sales." (Ketterer v. Armour & Co., 200 F. 322, 323; Klein v. Duchess Sandwich Co., Ltd., 14 Cal.2d 272, 282 [93 P.2d 799].) [11] To establish the manufacturer's liability it was sufficient that plaintiff proved that he was injured while using the Shopsmith in a way it was intended to be used as a result of a defect in design and manufacture of which plaintiff was not aware that made the Shopsmith unsafe for its intended use.

The manufacturer contended that the trial court erred in refusing to give three instructions requested by it. It appears from the record, however, that the substance of two of the requested instructions was adequately covered by the instructions given and that the third instruction was not supported by the evidence.

The judgment was affirmed.

­1. In this respect the trial court limited the jury to a consideration of two statements in the manufacturer's brochure. (1) "When Shopsmith is in Horizontal Position--Rugged construction of frame provides rigid support from end to end. Heavy centerless-ground steel tubing insures perfect alignment of components." (2) "Shopsmith maintains its accuracy because every component has positive locks that hold adjustments through rough or precision work."

­ 2. Any affirmation of fact or any promise by the seller relating to the goods is an express warranty if the natural tendency of such affirmation or promise is to induce the buyer to purchase the goods, and if the buyer purchases the goods relying thereon. No affirmation of the value of the goods, nor any statement purporting to be a statement of the seller's opinion only shall be construed as a warranty."

And so, boys and girls, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Greenman. For if it wasn't for his bonkin' we could all be working on unsafe tools. Oh yeah, and also all of our tools cost more because companies like Yuba (now bankrupt) must cover their buts with expensive liability insurance policies. God bless America.

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