Recreational Riding of Oil Well Pump is not a Reasonably Anticipated Use of the Product

This litigation arises from an accident that occurred in rural Rapides Parish on March 9, 2004, when thirteen year old Henry Goudeau climbed onto the moving pendulum of an oil well pump and attempted to “ride” the pendulum.  As the pendulum continued its upward motion, Henry’s pants became entangled in other parts of the pump, resulting in severe personal injuries.

Henry’s mother, Robbie Payne, subsequently filed suit against the manufacturer of the pumping unit, Lufkin. In response, Lufkin moved to have the case summarily dismissed, arguing it was not liable for Henry’s injuries because it did not “anticipate” at the time it designed and manufactured the product in the 1950s that it would be “used” for recreational purposes, like “riding,” by persons, including teenagers. Ms. Payne opposed Lufkin’s argument by contending that it was a foreseeable risk children would attempt to play on the oil well pump, and she relied on similar cases from Louisiana, California, Texas, and Oklahoma in which children had been injured while attempting to “ride” on an oil well pumping unit.

The trial court agreed with Lufkin and dismissed Payne’s suit. The court found that Ms. Payne failed to present sufficient evidence to show the pump was unreasonably dangerous in itself and for the purpose for which it was intended – pumping oil. Additionally, the court reasoned that, since Henry was 13 at the time of his accident, he should have known not to attempt to ride the machine. Thus, the court ruled that the pump was not unreasonably dangerous for its reasonably anticipated use because its anticipated use was for pumping oil and not recreational riding. Ms. Payne appealed.

The trial court’s dismissal of Ms. Payne’s suit was reversed on appeal after the appellate court concluded that the evidence presented by Ms. Payne was not “insufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude Lufkin … should have expected an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances to use or handle the pumping unit in this way.” Lufkin then appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The legal analysis concerning whether the Lufkin pump was unreasonably dangerous derives from the Louisiana Product Liability Act (“LPLA”). In accordance with its provisions, a manufacturer’s responsibility to a party injured by its product is set forth in La.Rev.Stat. 9:2800.54(A), (pdf) which provides:

The manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product by the claimant or another person or entity.  

The Supreme Court began its analysis of this issue with the definition of “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA, which is defined as “a use or handling of a product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances.” What constitutes a “reasonably anticipated use” is ascertained from the point of view of the manufacturer at the time of manufacture, and Louisiana courts have determined that the words “reasonably anticipated” effectively discourages the jury from using hindsight. Additionally, this phrase also conveys that the manufacturer is not responsible for every conceivable foreseeable use of its product.   Accordingly, the Supreme Court determined that – pursuant to the LPLA – Ms. Payne had to make a sufficient evidentiary showing that, at the time of manufacture, Lufkin should have reasonably expected an ordinary user or consumer of its pumping unit would use the pump as a “ride.” 

The Court found that the evidence presented to the trial court by both Ms. Payne and Lufkin established that the pump was manufactured solely for the purpose of extracting oil from the ground, and not for an amusement park ride. Thus, Ms. Payne failed to adequately support her contention that Henry’s accident arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the Lufkin pumping unit. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and re-instated the trial court’s summary dismissal of Ms. Payne’s action against Lufkin.

Take-Away: Under the LPLA, the reasonably anticipated use of a product is analyzed from the manufacturer’s perspective at the time of its manufacture rather than every conceivable foreseeable use of a product in hindsight.