Criminal Conduct Found To Be Intervening Cause…Sometimes.

Contributing Author: Scott Dayton

The Tennessee court of appeals recently affirmed summary judgment for defendants in a products-liability action where a product’s safety system was disabled and caused the death of plaintiffs’ decedent.  Alexander v. Antonio Zamperla, S.p.A. involved a ride at an amusement park called “the Hawk,” which was manufactured by Zamperla, S.p.A. and consists of 24 seats attached to the bottom of a pendulum.

The Hawk’s safety system uses a harness that lowers over each passenger’s torso. Once the harness is lowered over the passenger, steel rods engage to lock the harness to the seat frame in three locations:  behind the passenger’s head, above the passenger’s right hip, and above the passenger’s left hip. Once locked into place, any one of the three rods is strong enough to hold a rider in place by itself. The safety system prevented the ride from operating unless all of the passenger restraints were secure and all steel rods were engaged.

At some point, the amusement park’s manager, Mr. Martin, disabled the safety system in the Hawk that kept it from operating unless the passenger restraints were secure.  In March 2004, plaintiffs’ decedent was killed when her restraint failed and she fell 60-70 feet.

Mr. Martin was criminally convicted of reckless homicide for disabling the Hawk’s safety system.  Plaintiffs then brought a products-liability action against the Hawk’s manufacturer alleging that Mr. Martin’s criminal conduct was foreseeable and that the Hawk’s safety system was defective.

The trial court granted Defendants’ summary-judgment motions on the basis (1) that a third party’s placement of a jumper wire in the electrical control panel of the ride was not foreseeable and was a criminal act constituting a superseding cause of the decedent’s death; and (2) that the safety system of the Hawk had been significantly altered.

On appeal, the court of appeals emphasized that a reasonably foreseeable criminal act of a third person is not a superseding cause of the injury and does not break the chain of causation to relieve defendants of liability.  Nevertheless, the court found that the issue of whether Mr. Martin’s conduct was a superseding cause did not require submission to a jury:

” [W]e are not willing to say that product manufacturers are per se exculpated by the criminal actions of third parties as being necessarily superseding causes, as urged by Defendants. The proper case may well present itself such that a product manufacturer’s apparent negligence appropriately should be submitted to the jury for a determination of the foreseeability of the third party’s intervening criminal conduct to the manufacturer. However, we are unconvinced that the present action against the ride manufacturer based on Mr. Martin’s intentional conduct in overriding the ride’s safety system is such a case.”

In reaching this conclusion, the court of appeals noted that plaintiffs’ own expert testified that the Hawk’s safety system was state of the art when it was designed, and there was no reason to suspect that Mr. Martin would intentionally bypass the Hawk’s safety system.

Plaintiffs similarly argued that “the safety system could have been designed to prevent operation of the ride in the event that a jumper wire had been placed into the electric control panel.”  But the court of appeals rejected that argument.  First, Defendants demonstrated that the Hawk has an apparently complicated and sophisticated safety system that incorporates multiple features designed to protect passengers.  Further, the court noted that Mr. Martin’s highly specialized technical expertise–years in the United States Air Force working on Minutemen Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and his post-military career working on the maintenance, safe operation and quality inspections of nuclear reactors for the Tennessee Valley Authority–undoubtedly contributed to his ability to intentionally bypass the relatively complex wiring of the ride’s safety system.

Finally, Plaintiffs did not submit any evidence that the Hawk was in a defective condition when it left Defendants’ control; rather, Defendant’s demonstrated that the Hawk complied not only with industry practice, but also applicable federal and state standards governing amusement ride safety systems. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which investigated and reported on the incident, did not order a recall for the Hawk; did not issue any public warnings; and did not take any action against Defendants as a result of the incident.

The court of appeals also affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Mr. Martin’s intentional overriding of the ride’s safety system constituted an alteration of the product sufficient to relieve Defendants of liability.  The court of appeals cautioned, however, that its ruling did not mean that manufacturers may never be held liable whenever a third party intentionally bypasses the safety system installed by the manufacturer.

Although the outcome of this case seems like common-sense, manufacturers should note that the court did not create a per se rule absolving defendants of any liability where either criminal conduct or intentional bypass of safety devices is at issue.

The case is Alexander v. Antonio Zamperla, S.p.A., No. E2009-01049-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 27, 2010).