In May 2024 a Minnesota US appeal court held that a manufacturer’s warranty for a tractor to “repair or replace any part which is found to be defective in workmanship and material” unambiguously did not include design defects. The warranty excluded liability for any other warranty “express or implied as to quality, performance or freedom from defect”.

Two tractors sold by a major tractor manufacturer caught fire in two separate incidents. The tractors were designed without side shields on the engine. Crop debris in the engine bay could build up and create a fire hazard. The insurers of the purchasers of the tractors sought to recover losses paid to their insured. The tractor manufacturer denied liability for a design defect because its warranty covered only manufacturing defects.

The court examined dictionary definitions and a number of previous decisions to the effect that warranties for defects in “material or workmanship” do not include design defects. The court noted that it construed nontechnical words and phrases according to their plain and ordinary meanings and that courts often look at dictionary definitions to determine the plain meaning of words. “Workmanship” is “the execution or manner of making or doing something”. And “materials” are “the basic matter from which something physical is made”. These definitions concern the physical construction or creation of an object. A “design” is different.  Designs relate to the planning stage. Flaws in materials and workmanship refer to mistakes made during the construction or assembly of a product, while defects in design refer to inadequacies in the plan used to construct or assemble a product. On the evidence, the defect was a design defect. A manufacturing defect arises when the actual product does not match the product’s intended design, which was not the case where side shields on the engine were not part of the design. The fact that the manufacturer made them in accordance with that poor design did not transform a design defect into a manufacturing defect.

The same result would follow in South Africa. Many standard policy wordings make a clear distinction between defects in workmanship and material and defects in design.

[Secura Insurance Company v Deere & Company, United State Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit May 20, 2024 Nos. 23-2506/23-2509]