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Parks v. Ariens Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 14, 2016

Susan R. Parks, wife and next of kin of Timothy Glen Parks, deceased, and Executor of the Estate of Timothy Glen Parks, deceased Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Ariens Company, a Wisconsin Corporation Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: February 11, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa - Sioux City

          Before SHEPHERD, BEAM, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         This negligence case requires us to decide whether a product manufacturer can satisfy its duty to a purchaser by making available an optional safety feature that would have prevented the accident that gave rise to the suit. We agree with the district court[1] that it can, and that the defendant in this case did. We therefore affirm.[2]

         I

         Timothy Parks died from asphyxiation after the Gravely Promaster 152Z riding mower he was operating on his property fell off the edge of an embankment and rolled over on top of him.[3] His wife, Susan Parks (Parks) brought this suit alleging, as relevant to this appeal, that the manufacturer of the 152Z, Ariens Company, was negligent for failing to equip the machine with a rollover protection system (ROPS).

         At the time the 152Z in question was sold, the ROPS was an optional safety feature that consisted of a roll bar and seat belt; Ariens recommends its use for "slope operation." The 152Z had initially been sold without a ROPS to an Ariens dealer called Robertson Implement; Rick Robertson, the owner of the dealership, said he declined the option of a ROPS because he preferred to leave the choice to his customers. Robertson then sold the 152Z to a man named Coby Camerer, who declined to buy the optional feature after discussing its availability with Robertson. Camerer used the mower for eleven months before trading it back in to Robertson and purchasing a different model.

         A month later, in June 2006, Timothy Parks bought the 152Z previously owned by Camerer. When deposed after the accident, Robertson remembered discussing with Timothy Parks the handling of the mower and the terrain on which he planned to operate it, but couldn't recall whether he went over the availability and safety features of the ROPS. He was able to state, however, that his standard practice was to discuss the availability and safety features of the ROPS with each of his customers, and he had no reason to believe he deviated from that practice when he sold the 152Z to Timothy Parks. He also stated that his practice was to go over an Equipment Safety Check form with each customer and have the customer sign it; among the questions listed on the form are "Rollover protection system in place?" and "Rollover protection system rejected by customer?" The form was provided to Robertson by his insurance company, and he believed his insurance company required him to use it. Again, the record does not confirm whether Robertson went over the Equipment Safety Check form with Timothy Parks or how he answered – the forms from 2006 were thrown out in 2010 or 2011 – but there is no evidence to suggest that Robertson didn't follow his usual practice of going over the checklist with Timothy Parks.

         In June 2013, approximately seven years after purchasing the 152Z, Timothy Parks suffered the accident that resulted in his death. After his wife filed this suit, the district court granted summary judgment against her, holding that Ariens had satisfied any duty it owed Timothy Parks by offering the ROPS as an optional feature. Parks appeals, contending that Ariens was negligent for not including the ROPS with every 152Z it sold.

         II

         The doctrine that a manufacturer is, under certain circumstances, not negligent if a purchaser fails to buy optional safety equipment that would have prevented the accident originated with the New York intermediate appellate court decision in Biss v. Tenneco, Inc., 409 N.Y.S.2d 874 (N.Y.App.Div. 1978). That court, faced with a claim that a product sold without a ROPS was thereby defective, held that the manufacturer had not breached any duty it owed to the plaintiff because it had made the ROPS available as an optional feature and the plaintiff was "the party in the best position to exercise an intelligent judgment to make the trade-off between cost and function." Id. at 877. The following year we stated that "we accept [the Biss] theory as basically sound, " Wagner v. Int'l Harvester Co., 611 F.2d 224, 231 (8th Cir. 1979) (applying Minnesota law), and since then a variety of courts have followed some variation of this "optional equipment doctrine, " see, e.g., Austin v. Clark Equipment Co., 48 F.3d 833, 837 (4th Cir. 1995) (applying Virginia law); Scallan v. Duriron Co., 11 F.3d 1249, 1254 (5th Cir. 1994) (applying Louisiana law), superseded by statute as recognized in Perez v. Michael Weinig, Inc., No. Civ. A. 304CV0448, 2005 WL 1630018, at *4–*6 (W.D. La. Jul. 7, 2005); Morrison v. Kubota Tractor Corp., 891 S.W.2d 422, 428–29 (Mo.Ct.App. 1994); Butler v. Navistar Int'l Transp. Corp., 809 F.Supp. 1202, 1209 (W.D. Va. 1991) (applying Virginia law); Anderson v. P.A. Radocy & Sons, Inc., 865 F.Supp. 522, 531 (N.D. Ind. 1994) (applying Indiana law); Davis v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 719 P.2d 324, 326–27 (Colo. Ct. App. 1985).

         Although courts differ in how they articulate the requirements for applying the optional equipment doctrine, the New York Court of Appeals's decision in Scarangella v. Thomas Built Buses, Inc. provides a typical formulation:

The product is not defective where the evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom show that: (1) the buyer is thoroughly knowledgeable regarding the product and its use and is actually aware that the safety feature is available; (2) there exist normal circumstances of use in which the product is not unreasonably dangerous without the optional equipment; and (3) the buyer is in a position, given the range of uses of the product, to balance the benefits and the risks of not having the safety device in the specifically contemplated circumstances of the buyer's use of the product. In such a case, the buyer, not the manufacturer, is in the superior position to make the risk-utility assessment, and a well-considered decision by the buyer to dispense with the optional safety equipment will excuse the manufacturer from liability.

717 N.E.2d 679, 683 (N.Y. 1999). As Scarangella recognizes, under many circumstances a product will be capable of multiple uses, some of which are reasonably safe even without the optional equipment. And oftentimes the buyer will be in a better position than the manufacturer to know whether the machine will be put to such a use. In such situations, it makes sense to give the buyer the option of foregoing the add-on without subjecting the ...


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