In a recent lawsuit in the state of New York, the defendants, which were the manufacturers of a bank vault and of the various parts of an alarm and carbon dioxide suppression system, as well as the inspector of the integrated system, appealed that portion of an order of the Supreme Court that denied their motions for summary judgment, which would have fully or partially dismissed the wrongful death complaint by plaintiff, who was the survivor of a deceased bank employee.

The bank employee was poisoned by carbon dioxide when, after having been trapped accidentally in the vault after hours, she sounded the alarm. There was no warning on the alarm box that the vault would be flooded with carbon dioxide gas if she sounded it. In response to the plaintiff’s wrongful death complaint, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment against the plaintiff. The trial court held that none of the parties whose negligence was alleged in the survivor’s complaint was entitled to summary judgment of dismissal, holding that there were simply too many questions about who was in a position to have known of the danger and who should have provided what warnings.

On appeal, the court determined that while the components of the system worked in the intended manner, there was no notice indicating that pulling the alarm would have activated the release of the gas. The defendant manufacturer claimed it had no responsibility to place warning labels on the alarm, but was aware, that the alarm could be used in conjunction with a suppression system. The court stated that the manufacturer could not claim that its parts were used improperly as the components acted in the manner in which they were intended.

The defendant who designed the suppression system contended that since the system passed inspection, there must have been compliance with whatever warnings were required. With reference to the defendant service contractor that performed the inspections, the court pointed out that as the party responsible for keeping the system in working order by means of its presumably trained personnel, it was in a position to advise that appropriate signs should be implemented and was in the best position to appreciate the consequences of the absence of a warning sign.

The defendant designer of the vault itself claimed that it could not have been negligent because the fire suppression system was installed after the plans for the vault were complete. But even if the vault had been designed first, the absence of an escape mechanism made it foreseeable that an individual could be trapped inside.

The appeals court held that whether such a device should have been installed is a question of fact, and further whether the designer of the vault would be entitled to indemnification from a party that requested a vault without an escape mechanism is an issue different from any responsibility the designer might have had to potential users such as the decedent. Therefore, the court denied all of the motions for the summary judgment.

The denial of the motions for summary judgment merely means the parties have or will file necessary responses to the complaint and the matter will then go to trial and the Trier of fact will then ultimately decide who, if anyone, was negligent and what the consequences, if any, may be for the said negligence.