Clairmont, et al. v. Amer Sports Winter & Outdoor Company, et al. (Lawyers Weekly No. 09-039-17)

NO. 14-00505
This action arises out of a January 15, 2011 incident in which the plaintiff, Francis Clairmont (“Clairmont’), tripped and fell while wearing a pair of boots manufactured by defendant Amer Sports Winter & Outdoor Company (“Amer Sports”). Clairmont’s Complaint against Amer Sports alleges negligence (Count I), defective design (Count II), breach of warranty (Count III), and failure to warn (Count IV) in connection her accident. Clairmont’s husband and co-plaintiff, George Clairmont, also asserts a claim for loss of consortium in the Complaint (Count IX).
This matter is before the Court on Amer Sports’ motion for summary judgment on all of the Plaintiffs’ claims. For the following reasons, Amer Sports’ motion is ALLOWED.
The following relevant facts are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, in accordance with the dictates of Mass. R. Civ. P. 56.
On or about January 15, 2011, Plaintiff Francis Clairmont (“Francis”) was shopping at the Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham. She was wearing a pair of Solomon Gore-tex Contragrip
1 Eastern Mountain Sports, Inc.
ankle high hiking boots (“the Boots”) at the time. Amer Sports manufactured the Boots. The Boots have a “speed lacing” design, which includes a rigid J-shaped hook comprised of a curved neck and a fastening tail, through which the laces pass to tie each of the Boots. As Francis exited the store, the lace of the left boot caught on the hook of her right boot. She fell forward as her legs became entangled and was injured.
Plaintiffs present no expert testimony on the design of the speed laces, and have adduced no evidence that Amer Sports knew, or had reason to know, of any similar accidents or occurrences caused by the speed laces.
Amer Sports contends that manufacturers have used the patented speed lacing design for more than one-hundred years, and that this design is popular on hiking boots, work boots, and ice skates.
I. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows that “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Mass. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also DuPont v. Commissioner of Corr., 448 Mass. 389, 397 (2007). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no triable issue and he or she is entitled to judgment. Ng Bros. Constr., Inc. v. Cranney, 436 Mass. 638, 644 (2002), citing Pederson v. Time, Inc., 404 Mass. 14, 17 (1989); Kourouvacilis v. Gen. Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 716 (1991). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in his or her favor. Jupin v. Kask, 447 Mass. 141, 143 (2006), citing Coveney v. President & Trs. of the Coll.
of the Holy Cross, 388 Mass. 16 (1983); see also Simplex Techs., Inc. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 429 Mass. 196, 197 (1999).
II. Negligence, Defective Design, and Breach of Warranty Claims (Counts I, II, and III)
While styled as three different theories of liability, Counts I, II, and III alleging negligence, defective design and breach of warranty, respectively, all turn on the same core contention that the speed laces on the Boots were defectively designed and that such defect caused plaintiff Francis’ accident.
To establish a claim for defective design, a plaintiff must show that the manufacturer “failed to exercise reasonable care to eliminate avoidable or foreseeable dangers to the user of the product.” Morrell v. Precise Engineering, Inc., 36 Mass. App. Ct. 935, 936 (1994) (Rule 1:28 Opinion), citing Uloth v. City Tank Corp., 376 Mass. 874, 880-881 (1978). A defective design claim requires proof that the product is not reasonably safe for its intended purposes and for reasonably foreseeable uses, considering the customer’s ordinary expectations about the product. See Back v. Wickes Corp., 375 Mass. 633, 640–641 (1978); see also Haglund v. Philip Morris, Inc., 446 Mass. 741, 748 (2006) (in design defect case, “jury must weigh multiple factors, including ‘the gravity of the danger posed by the challenged design, the likelihood that such danger would occur, the mechanical feasibility of a safer alternative design, the financial cost of an improved design, and the adverse consequences to the product and to the consumer that would result from an alternative design.’”) (citations omitted). Further, “[i]n claims alleging negligence in the design of a product, as with claims of a design defect in breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, the plaintiff must show an available design modification which would reduce the risk without undue cost or interference with the performance of the [product], and the jury must consider whether a safer alternative design was available in deciding whether
the defendant was negligent for failing to adopt that design. … a reasonable alternative design must be shown before a defendant may be found liable for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability based on a design defect, and [a] defendant cannot be found to have been negligent without having breached the warranty of merchantability.” Evans v. Lorillard Tobacco Co., 465 Mass. 411, 443-444 (2013) (citations, internal punctuation omitted).
In this case, Plaintiffs present no expert testimony on whether the design of the speed laces was defective or whether there was an available appropriate design modification that would have reduced such risk without undue cost or interference with the product’s performance. Plaintiffs contend they do not need an expert; Amer Sports argues that they do. The parties appear to agree, however, that the requirement of expert testimony poses a purely legal question for the Court to resolve. Expert testimony is generally required where an issue the jury must decide “is beyond the common knowledge or understanding of the lay juror.” Commonwealth v. Sands, 424 Mass. 184, 186 (1997). Accordingly, Massachusetts courts have routinely held that expert testimony in design defect cases is required. See, e.g., Enrich v. Windmere Corp., 416 Mass. 83, 87 (1993) (alleged defect in an electric cooling fan required expert testimony); Morrell, 36 Mass. App. Ct. at 936 (determination of proper scaffolding brackets required expert testimony); Wiska v. St. Stanislaus Social Club, Inc., 7 Mass. App. Ct. 813, 821 (1979) (alleged defective design of an automobile’s windshield required expert testimony). It is only in rare cases, where the jurors can simply apply their own lay knowledge to determine liability because the “design defect claimed is so simple or obvious that the need for technical assistance is eliminated,” that such expert testimony is unnecessary. Esturban v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 68 Mass. App. Ct. 911, 912 n. 7 (2007); Smith v. Ariens Co., 375 Mass. 620, 625 (1978) (a jury could infer without expert testimony that metal protrusions on the handlebars of a
snowmobile, which cut the plaintiff’s face when she was propelled forward in a collision, amounted to an obvious design defect); doCanto v. Ametek, 367 Mass. 776, 782 (1975) (no expert testimony needed where plaintiff introduced the defendant’s subsequent remedial measures to the machine that caused the injury and the opinion of the designer of the machine that the product was unsafe).2
While the speed laces in this case are of a simple design, and the facts of the accident are straightforward, the analysis of the alleged design defect in the speed laces is neither simple nor straightforward. The jury would have to consider the biomechanics of a person walking in the Boots, the design and location of the speed laces on the Boots, and the appropriateness of an alternative design, all issues which are not sufficiently obvious that they are within the average juror’s common knowledge. See Esturban, 68 Mass. App. Ct. at 912 (“Without the aid of an expert in the field, jurors would also be left to speculate about whether alternatively engineered designs might have prevented the accident”) (citation omitted). This Court thus finds expert testimony is required in this case to prove a design defect in the Boots, and that speed laces – which haves been widely used in a variety of footwear for a century – do not present a gross or obvious defect.
Moreover, aside from Plaintiffs’ post-accident claim that the Boots posed an obvious trip hazard, Plaintiffs failed to elicit any evidence concerning similar incidents related to the speed lacing design or that Amer was aware of any such risks associated with the speed laces.
2 The rule is similar in professional negligence cases. In them, a plaintiff can prove professional negligence without an expert “[o]nly where professional negligence is so gross or obvious that jurors can rely on their common knowledge to recognize or infer negligence.” Herbert A. Sullivan, Inc. v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 439 Mass. 387, 403 (2003). Examples of such “gross or obvious” malpractice in the professional context includes a failure to meet deadlines, lack of compliance with client’s instructions, and unexcused failures to defend a client, particularly when such actions are compounded by misrepresentations and false statements to the client. See, e.g. Global Naps, Inc. v. Awiszus, 457 Mass. 489, 501 (2010); Wagerman v. Adams, 829 F.2d 196, 218-220 (1st Cir. 1987); Glidden v. Terranova, 12 Mass. App. Ct. 597, 598-601 (1981).
Plaintiffs thus therefore failed to demonstrate that the speed laces on the Boots created a reasonably foreseeable risk of accident. Two other courts have come to similar conclusions. In a case addressing a similar claim involving shoes with a speed lacing design, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted summary judgment against the plaintiff’s claim, finding that the plaintiff had “fail[ed] to raise genuine issues of material fact regarding the breach of duty, foreseeability, and causation elements of his negligence claim related to speed-lace hooks. Plaintiff did not demonstrate how a reasonable jury could find that Defendant was on actual or constructive notice of the alleged danger of speed-lace hooks nor did Plaintiff show that an accident from the use of speed-lace hooks was reasonably foreseeable.” Barger v. CSX Transp., Inc., 110 F. Supp. 2d 648, 653-654 (S.D. Ohio 2000). Similarly, the First Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment in a similar case to a manufacturer of resin sandals, called “Crocs,” in part because the plaintiff “failed to put forward an expert to accredit” a government report on potential dangers of the product. Geshke v. Crocs, Inc., 740 F.3d 74, 79 (1st Cir. 2014).
Plaintiffs failed to adduce evidence, expert or factual, to support their contention that the Boots posed an obvious design defect or that a reasonable alternative design was available. Amer Sports is thus entitled to judgment as to Counts I, II, and III of the Complaint.
III. Failure to Warn (Count IV)
Count IV of the Complaint alleges Amer Sports had a duty to warn Plaintiff Francis Clairmont that the Boots posed a tripping hazard.
A manufacturer has a duty to warn against a foreseeable use of its product involving a hazard not apparent to the user. Fegan v. Lynn Ladder Co., Inc., 3 Mass. App. Ct. 60, 63-64 (1975). However, a manufacturer has no duty to warn of “risks that were not reasonably foreseeable at the time of sale or could not have been discovered by way of reasonable testing
prior to marketing the product.” Vassallo v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 428 Mass. 1, 23 (1998). “A warning is not required unless ‘the person on whom the duty rests has some reason to suppose a warning is needed.’” Killeen v. Harmon Grain Prod., Inc., 11 Mass. App. Ct. 20, 24 (1980) (quoting Carney v. Bereault, 348 Mass. 502, 506 (1965)). Further, “where the danger presented by a given product is obvious, no duty to warn [exists] because a warning will not reduce the likelihood of injury.” Bavuso v. Caterpillar Indus., Inc., 408 Mass. 694, 699 (1990), quoted in Evans, 465 Mass. at 439.
Francis’ argument that the speed laces were obviously defectively designed undermines her failure to warn claim. Even leaving that aside, Francis failed to establish that the speed laces posed a reasonably foreseeable risk or that such risk could have been discovered through additional product testing. Accordingly, based upon the facts before this Court, Amer Sports had no reason to believe a warning was required and is entitled to summary judgment as to Count IV of the Complaint.
IV. Loss of Consortium (Count IX)
Recovery for loss of consortium generally requires proof of a tortious act which caused injury to one’s spouse. Sena v. Commonwealth, 417 Mass. 250, 264 (1994) (citations omitted); Mouradian v. General Elec., 23 Mass. App. Ct. 538, 544 (1987) (citations omitted). As discussed above, as the substantive counts brought by Francis against Amer Sports must be dismissed, the claims of her husband, George, for loss of consortium arising from Francis’ claims must also be dismissed. Short v. Town of Burlington, 11 Mass. App. Ct. 909, 910 (1981) (claim of wife for loss of consortium failed as entirely derivative of failed personal injury claim by husband). Amer Sports is therefore entitled to summary judgment on Count IX.
For the foregoing reasons, Amer Sports Winter & Outdoor Company’s motion for summary judgment on Counts I-IV and IX is ALLOWED.
Michael D. Ricciuti
Justice of the Superior Court
DATED: October 30, 2017

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