Scarangella v. Thomas Built Buses, Inc.
717 N.E.2d 679 (NY 1999)

Facts:

  • A school bus being operated in reverse by a co-employee struck and severely injured plaintiff Concetta Scarangella, a school bus driver for third-party defendant Huntington Coach Corp., Inc.
  • At that time, Thomas, Inc. offered buyers as an optional safety feature a back-up alarm that would automatically sound when a driver shifted the bus into reverse gear, but Huntington chose not to purchase this optional equipment.
  • Huntington’s president and chief operating officer, Kevin Clifford, opted against the alarm because “it screams” when a bus is put in reverse gear, and he intended to park the buses at a bus yard in the middle of a residential neighborhood where his company had been experiencing problems with neighbors concerning noise pollution.
  • Scarangella then brought a products liability suit for defective design.

History:

  • The Supreme Court, Suffolk County, granted manufacturer’s motion for directed verdict.
  • Supreme Court, Appellate Division, affirmed.

Issue:
Whether the fact that the optional safety feature of back-up alarm was not made a standard feature rendered the design of the bus defective.

Holding:
No. Affirmed.

Reasoning:

  • Where a plaintiff claims that a product without an optional safety feature is defectively designed because the equipment was not standard, 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.
  • Here:
    • (1) Huntington was a highly knowledgeable consumer;
    • (2) In the actual circumstances of the operation of the buses in reverse by Huntington, the risk of harm from the absence of a back-up alarm was not substantial; and
    • (3) Huntington was in a position to balance the benefits and the dangers of not having the safety device, given the contemplated use of the bus.
  • Thus, P couldn’t make out a prima facie case.