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November 2011

New Jersey Team Obtains Defense Verdict in Products Liability/Wrongful Death Matter

New Jersey attorneys Elizabeth Lorell, Scott Heck and Keith Murphy were on the trial team that won a defense verdict on October 21, 2011, in a products liability/wrongful death action in Federal Court, the District of New Jersey.  In the Estate of Kazimierz Leja v. Schmidt Manufacturing, Inc., Gordon & Rees represented Schmidt, a Texas company, which manufactured abrasive blasting equipment.  In May of 2000, the Plaintiff, while working with a Schmidt machine, was injured in a workplace accident in which he lost his dominant right arm.  In the lawsuit, Plaintiff asserted violations of the New Jersey Products Liability Statute (N.J.S. 2A:58C-1 et seq), which many commentators have called one of the toughest products liability laws in the country for defendants, due to its strict liability ramifications.

Plaintiff's products claims against Schmidt were twofold: a Failure to Warn and Design Defect.  Plaintiff contended that the Schmidt product (and a component part) which were involved in the accident did not comply with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers ("ASME") Code.  Schmidt defended against the allegations by proffering evidence that Plaintiff's reliance on that Code was misplaced and that the product had been certified as meeting the Code before it left Schmidt's Texas facility and was sold to its New York distributor.  The parties stipulated at trial that the distributor (who settled before trial) removed five warnings on the machine before it was sold to Plaintiff's employer.

Shortly before the case was first scheduled for trial and eight years after the accident, Plaintiff died of an overdose of alcohol.  Plaintiff's estate then amended the Complaint, asserting a Wrongful Death claim.  The estate alleged that since Plaintiff was so depressed from the accident, it caused his post traumatic stress disorder which led to his alcoholism and death.  In addition to denying liability for the accident, Schmidt presented evidence that since Plaintiff did not begin abusing alcohol until several years after the accident, the wrongful death claim was too remote in time to be connected to the accident. 

After Schmidt won several key evidentiary pre-trial motions and a partial motion for summary judgment, the case proceeded to trial on September 12th.  Eleven experts were involved in the trial, seven for the Plaintiff and four for the Defendant.  After a six week jury trial, a defense verdict was rendered in Schmidt's favor by a 12 member unanimous jury, completely absolving Schmidt from any liability.

Scott V. Heck
Elizabeth F. Lorell
Keith J. Murphy