NJ Appeals Court Holds No Duty to Warn About Gravity

WARNING: Gravity works in direction indicated (image: Steven Pavlov via Wikipedia, CC 4.0 (modified))

This week, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that a bunk-bed manufacturer has no duty to warn the user of a bunk bed that rolling off the top bunk during sleep may result in gravitationally induced injuries.

This ruling was necessary because a New Jersey trial court had previously ruled that a bunk-bed manufacturer did have a duty to warn the user of a bunk bed that rolling off the top bunk during sleep may result in gravitationally induced injuries.

In Mathews v. University Loft Company, the plaintiff, a college student, claimed that he had been asleep on his bunk bed “about noon” on October 11, 1999, when his pager went off. His roommate yelled at him to turn the pager off, which plaintiff said “startled” him and the next thing he knew, he was “on the floor.” Working together, the floor and gravity dislocated plaintiff’s shoulder, which then hurt a lot. Plaintiff admitted that he later resumed sleeping in the bed, although he was careful to position himself “all the way against the wall” to minimize the chances of being subjected to the floor’s titanic gravitational forces again.

According to the plaintiff, he had never slept on a loft or bunk bed before, and it had never “cross[ed his] mind” or “occurred to” him that he could fall out of one. He testified that had the manufacturer of the bed provided a warning with the product, he would then have been aware of the hazard and could have hugged the wall to begin with. He asserted a number of other claims, but all were dismissed, except for the failure-to-warn claim.

It does seem possible that Mathews actually injured himself in this alleged fall.  Applying Torricelli’s equation, v2f=v2i + 2aΔd, with the assumption that the fall occurred at or near sea level so that Δ can be assumed to be 9.8m/s2, and ignoring the effect of air resistance, I calculate that Mathews was traveling approximately 6.26 meters per second or almost 14 miles per hour when he struck the floor. (Under the theory of relativity, of course, it would be just as valid to say that the floor struck him, which would make it the floor’s fault. Unfortunately for the manufacturer, our legal system has not caught up with Einstein yet.) As someone who once walked into a lightpole at less than half that speed, I can tell you that an impact of that kind likely did hurt like hell.  So the claim of injury could be valid.

The failure-to-warn claim, though, is bullshit.

Mathews hired an expert witness who claimed to be an expert in “safety engineering,” including “safety in falls from heights, and human factors.”  I’ve never really understood what “human factors” means, frankly, but one of the factors here was, allegedly, a human’s need to be warned that falls from heights may be unsafe. According to the expert, the bed was six feet high (apparently, he had measured it), and a fall from a height of six feet constitutes a “significant risk.” (See above.) He claimed that the manufacturer should have provided an adequate warning of that risk, and he defined “adequate warning” as one that “tell[s] the people what the danger is and how to avoid it.” Thank you, Dr. Adequate. You may step down.

Not surprisingly, the defendant moved for summary judgment. More surprisingly, the trial judge denied that motion. She found that an issue of fact existed as to whether the dangers of the loft bed, specifically the possibility of falling out of it, were open and obvious so that no warning would legally be required. The jury resolved that issue in plaintiff’s favor, and awarded him almost $180,000 based on the manufacturer’s failure to warn of the gravitational danger.

But the Appellate Division found that the risk was obvious, as a matter of law.  It pointed out that putting a warning on everything would mean nobody paid attention to the important ones, and that there was no duty to label every product that “poses a generally-known risk of injury if misused, dropped, or fallen from.” Further, it pointed out, a warning would not have done any good in this case anyway, since plaintiff was asleep at the time when he claimed he should’ve been warned.

Plaintiff said through his attorney that he would appeal the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court, thus again flagrantly disregarding an obvious risk associated with going up higher than necessary.