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Anzalone v. Westech Gear Corp.

July 26, 1995

JOHN ANZALONE, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WESTECH GEAR CORPORATION (FORMERLY KNOWN AS OR AS SUCCESSOR TO WESTERN GEAR CORPORATION), DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND "JOHN DOE" GEAR CORPORATION" (A FICTITIOUS NAME BEING ANY PRESENTLY UNKNOWN MANUFACTURER OR DISTRIBUTOR OF THE GEAR MECHANISM CAUSING INJURY TO THE PLAINTIFF; "JOHN SMITH" INSTALLATION CORPORATION (A FICTITIOUS NAME BEING ANY PRESENTLY UNKNOWN INSTALLER OF THE GEAR MECHANISM CAUSING INJURY TO THE PLAINTIFF), DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 271 N.J. Super. 522 (1994).

Justice Handler has filed a separate Concurring opinion, in which Chief Justice Wilentz and Justice Stein join. Justice Pollock has filed a separate Dissenting opinion, in which Justices O'hern and Garibaldi join. Justice Coleman did not participate.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

JOHN ANZALONE V. WESTECH GEAR CORPORATION, ET AL. (A-69-94)

Argued November 29, 1994 - Decided July 26, 1995

PER CURIAM

John Anzalone was a civilian employee of the United States Navy working as a steward aboard a naval tanker used for transporting fuel and supplies to vessels at sea. On March 20, 1987, Anzalone was engaged in a fuel replenishment operation in which a device called the ram tensioner was used. While walking near the open and unguarded lower sheave block of the ram tensioner, Anzalone tripped and, falling forward, grabbed with his left hand one of the spanwires that was being fed vertically downward from the upper sheave assembly. As the spanwire passed through the lower sheave block, Anzalone's left hand was partially amputated.

Anzalone sued WesTech Gear Corporation (WesTech), seeking damages for his injuries. The complaint alleged that the ram tensioner had been negligently and defectively designed and manufactured by WesTech, then known as Western Gear Corporation, and, thus, WesTech was liable because it had distributed and installed the ram tensioner. WesTech denied liability because the ram tensioner had been designed and manufactured without any safety features in strict conformance with specific and detail government specifications, which preempt any contrary state-law duty.

WesTech moved for summary judgment, asserting that the ram tensioner had been designed and furnished in accordance with government specifications and, therefore, recovery was barred by the "government contractor defense" enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.. The trial court granted WesTech's motion, finding that the government contractor defense applied because the design of the ram tensioner, which did not provide for any safety features with respect to the lower sheave assembly, conformed to detailed and specific specifications approved by the government.

The Appellate Division reversed the judgment of the trial court, concluding that the government contractor defense was not applicable because WesTech was not prohibited by the terms of its contract specifications from including safety devices on the lower sheave assembly of the ram tensioner.

The Supreme Court granted certification.

HELD: The members of the Court, being equally divided, affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division. The government specifications, according to which the ram tensioner was designed, manufactured, and supplied, did not impose any requirements that would conflict with the duty of the contractor under state law to provide a product that incorporated a safety feature for the lower sheave assembly of the ram tensioner. Therefore, the government contractor defense is inapplicable as a bar to WesTech's liability.

The following is discussed in JUSTICE HANDLER's Concurring opinion, in which CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICE STEIN join:

1. Displacement of state law occurs only where a "significant conflict" exists between an identifiable federal policy or interest and the operation of state law, or the application of state law would frustrate specific objectives of federal legislation. State law that holds government contractors liable for design defect in military equipment can in some circumstances present a significant conflict with federal policy and, therefore, must be displaced. To identify those circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court in Boyle formulated a three-part test. Immunity is afforded military contractors in respect of design defects when: 1) the federal government approved reasonably precise specifications; 2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and 3) the contractor warned the government about known risks. This test is the operative standard for determining whether a significant conflict exists to justify the preemption of state liability laws. (pp. 5-11)

2. The very detailed and specific specifications for the ram tensioner were formulated and approved by the federal government. Further, the ram tensioner was manufactured and supplied in conformity with those specifications and was installed under the control and direction of the federal government. Nonetheless, "reasonably precise specifications" alone do not establish a "significant conflict between the federal government's contractual interests and the state's interests under its tort laws." If it is possible for the contractor to comply with both its contractual obligations and the state-prescribed duty of care, the state law would generally not be preempted. (pp. 11-16)

3. A significant conflict would arise if it could be shown that the design feature in question was itself considered by a government officer and thus falls within the area where the policy of the discretionary function would be frustrated. Failure-to-warn cases are instructive in this area. The record in this case discloses that the federal government was not concerned with the safety aspects of the ram tensioner or the need for provisions for safety features in the specifications. Thus, nothing in the record indicates that the government exercised any discretion with respect to safety devices. (pp. 16-21)

4. A safety feature for the lower sheave assembly of the ram tensioner may be required as a matter of state law without posing a significant conflict with identifiable government interests. Safety features were not part of the very detailed specifications and safety in the operation of the lower sheave assembly was neither paramount nor an incidental concern in the design of the product. Thus, a safety feature that would overcome the risk of injury from the operation of the lower sheave assembly could be incorporated into the product without substantially affecting or modifying any of the features required by the express specifications and without impairing the basic objectives of the design of the ram tensioner. (pp. 21-25)

The following is discussed in JUSTICE POLLOCK's Dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICES O'HERN AND GARIBALDI join:

1. The flaw in the analysis of the concurrence is that it poses its own formula to determine whether the imposition of a duty on WesTech would create a "significant conflict" with the government's interests, rather than applying the Boyle test. The concurrence infers that because the Navy did not explicitly forbid WesTech from installing a guard on the ram tensioner, WesTech had a duty to design and provide such a device. This inference stands Boyle on its head. (pp. 1-4)

2. The concurrence misconstrues Boyle. The Boyle test expressly recognizes the inherent difference between a case in which a contractor designs and manufactures military equipment for the federal government and a case, such as this one, involving the government's procurement of military equipment designed by, or in conjunction with military engineers. The very purpose of Boyle was to define those circumstances involving military design and procurement that present a "significant conflict with federal policy." If the Navy had manufactured the ram tensioner, it would be immune under the Federal Tort Claims Act. To impose liability on WesTech for making a product for which the Navy would not be liable if it had made the product itself contravenes such legislative immunity. (pp. 4-7)

CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICE STEIN join in JUSTICE HANDLER's Concurring opinion. JUSTICES O'HERN and GARIBALDI join in JUSTICE POLLOCK's opinion. JUSTICE COLEMAN did not participate.

PER CURIAM

The members of the Court being equally divided, the judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed.

JUSTICE HANDLER has filed a separate Concurring opinion, in which CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICE STEIN join. JUSTICE POLLOCK has filed a separate Dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICES O'HERN and GARIBALDI join. JUSTICE COLEMAN did not participate.

HANDLER, J., Concurring.

This is a products-liability case in which a civilian employee of the United States Navy was injured on shipboard by a device supplied to the Navy by a federal government contractor. The employee brought this action against the contractor, contending that the device, called a "ram tensioner," was defectively designed in that it did not have safety features that could have prevented such accidents and, therefore, the contractor is liable for that design defect under the state common-law duty to provide safe products. The contractor, invoking the government contractor defense, denies liability because the ram tensioner had been designed and manufactured without any safety features in strict conformance with specific and detailed government specifications, which preempt any contrary state-law duty.

The trial court, concluding that the government contractor defense was applicable, entered summary judgment in favor of the contractor. On appeal, the Appellate Division disagreed and reversed the lower court judgment. 271 N.J. Super. 573 (1994). The contractor filed a petition for certification, which this Court granted. 137 N.J. 314 (1994). The sole issue for the Court's determination is the applicability of the government contractor defense.

Plaintiff John Anzalone was a civilian employee of the United States Navy working as a steward aboard the USNS Waccamaw, a naval tanker used for transporting fuel and supplies to vessels at sea. On March 20, 1987, he was engaged in a fuel-replenishment operation in which the ram tensioner was used. The function of the ram tensioner was explained by the Appellate Division:

During a typical replenishment operation, a wire rope known as a "spanwire" or "highline" extends from the delivering ship to the receiving ship to provide support for connecting fuel and supply lines. The spanwire is reeved through a ram tensioner, which contains a series of pulleys at both ends of a vertical column (collectively termed the upper and lower sheave block or assembly). It is operated by a hydraulic ram to maintain constant tension on the spanwire by either "paying out" or "taking in" the spanwire so as to prevent supply lines from falling into the water.

[271 N.J. Super. at 524-25.]

While walking near the open and unguarded lower sheave block of the ram tensioner, Anzalone tripped and, falling forward, reached out and grabbed with his left hand one of the spanwires that was being fed vertically downward from the upper sheave assembly. As the spanwire passed through the lower sheave block, Anazlone's left hand was partially amputated. Id. at 525.

Anzalone filed a complaint against defendant WesTech Gear Corporation (WesTech) in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Hudson County Division, seeking damages for his injuries. The complaint alleged that the ram tensioner had been negligently and defectively designed and manufactured by defendant, then known as Western Gear Corporation, and, consequently, WesTech was liable because it had distributed and installed the ram tensioner. WesTech answered the complaint, asserting that the ram tensioner had been designed and furnished in accordance with government specifications, and, therefore, recovery was barred by the government contractor defense as enunciated by the United States Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500, 108 S. Ct. 2510, 101 L. Ed. 2d 442 (1988).

The trial court determined, on defendant's motion for summary judgment, that the government contractor defense was available to WesTech because the design of the ram tensioner, which did not provide for any safety features with respect to lower sheave assembly, conformed to detailed and specific specifications approved by the government. 271 N.J. Super. at 528. The Appellate Division, however, reversed the judgment of the trial court, concluding that the government contractor defense was not applicable because WesTech was not prohibited by the terms of its contract specifications from including safety devices on the lower sheave assembly of the ram tensioner. Id. at 537.

Substantially for the reasons set forth in the opinion of Judge Petrella, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division. We hold that the government specifications, according to which the ram tensioner was designed, manufactured and supplied, did not impose any requirements that would conflict with the duty of the contractor under state law to provide a product that incorporated a safety feature for the lower sheave assembly of the ...


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