Bakery equipment distributor not liable for worker’s conveyor belt-related death


June 13, 2017

A distributor of bakery equipment could not be held liable for the death of a worker who sustained fatal injuries when her clothing became entangled in a conveyor belt at a commercial bakery, the federal court in Massachusetts ruled. The evidence showed that the distributor did not design, manufacture, or install the conveyor belt at issue; rather, the bakery’s chief engineer did. Thus, a negligent design claim brought by the worker’s estate against the distributor failed as a matter of law. In addition, because the distributor had no duty to conduct a safety test of the conveyor belt, the estate’s failure-to-warn claim failed as well (Satchi v. Rheon U.S.A., Inc., June 12, 2017, Young, W.).

On the day of the accident, an employee’s clothes became caught in a conveyor belt while she was working at a commercial bakery. Although her fellow employees tried to shut off the conveyor belt and cut her clothing free of the machine, she sustained substantial injuries and died several days later. Her estate filed suit against Rheon U.S.A., Inc., alleging that the company negligently designed the equipment used at the bakery and that this negligently designed equipment caused the worker’s death. According to the complaint, the conveyor system lacked essential safety systems and other guarding mechanisms. Rheon sought summary judgment, asserting that it was the bakery—not Rheon—that designed the conveyor belt that killed the worker.

Conveyor belt. The bakery had purchased some of Rheon’s equipment for a "Stress Free Artisan Bread Line," also known as the "Rheon Line." However, instead of purchasing a conveyor belt from Rheon, the bakery installed one that was designed and built in-house by its chief engineer. After the Rheon equipment and the conveyor belt were installed, Rheon employees ran test batches to ensure that the Rheon equipment properly delivered dough through the system. Rheon’s documents made clear that the purpose of these tests was to assess efficacy, not safety.

Negligent design. Under Massachusetts law, a plaintiff bringing a product liability action must demonstrate that he or she was injured by a product produced by the particular defendant he or she seeks to hold liable. In this case, deposition testimony by the bakery’s chief engineer demonstrated that he had maintained exclusive control over the design and construction of the conveyor belt on which the worker was killed. He had created the machine’s blueprints, and his employees had built and installed the conveyor belt without any assistance from Rheon. Although one of the estate’s experts made much of the fact that Rheon had advised the chief engineer of the ideal height and rate for the conveyor belt as well as the optimal places in which to bore holes for the flour and cornmeal dusters, the expert failed to explain why this seemingly minimal involvement rendered Rheon the manufacturer of the entire conveyor belt. Finding the expert’s report conclusory and contradicted by much of the evidence in the record, the court afforded it no weight.

In addition, although the estate cited to several Rheon documents indicating that Rheon was aware that the bakery was manufacturing its own conveyor belt and that Rheon was providing limited technical assistance, those documents failed to overcome the impression given by the bakery’s chief engineer that he had designed, built, and installed the conveyor belt. Thus, the documents did not stand for the proposition that Rheon was the designer of that equipment. Based on the record before the court, Rheon had no involvement in the design of the conveyor belt’s safety features.

Reading the remaining evidence in the light most favorable to the estate, the court found it implausible that Rheon’s provision of minor technical assistance somehow rendered it the producer of a machine that was designed, built, and installed by the bakery. Thus, there was no genuine dispute as to the identity of the sole manufacturer of the conveyor belt: it was the bakery, not Rheon. Accordingly, the estate failed to demonstrate a fundamental element of its negligence claim against Rheon.

Duty to warn. Massachusetts law also provides that "[a] manufacturer of a product has a duty to warn foreseeable users of dangers in the use of that product of which he knows or should have known." However, that duty does not extend to products created by other manufacturers. In addition, state law does not create an affirmative duty to warn of risk of harm. A duty voluntarily assumed, however, must be performed with due care.

In this case, Rheon did not conduct a safety test of the conveyor belt, and it was not required to do so. Nevertheless, the estate’s experts asserted that Rheon was under an affirmative duty to advise the bakery of its safety obligations, given Rheon’s expertise regarding occupational health and safety, as well as the opportunities Rheon had to warn the bakery of safety hazards during its test runs of the Rheon Line. In the court’s view, that assertion was contradicted by law. Because the conveyor belt was not a Rheon product, Rheon was never under any affirmative duty to warn.

Rheon had a duty to warn only if it had voluntarily undertaken such a duty. Contrary to the experts’ argument, Rheon’s efficacy checks of its Rheon Line did not voluntarily place the company under a duty to check the safety of the conveyor belt. As explained previously, Rheon had performed the checks to make sure that its line delivered enough dough; they were not safety checks. Nor did Rheon’s user manual create an affirmative duty. The manual stated that "initial compliance in the design of the machinery is the responsibility of the designer and installer of the system"; and Rheon was not the "designer and installer" of the conveyor belt.

In sum, the record failed to show that Rheon owed the bakery an obligation to perform a safety check of the conveyor belt. According to the court, it was plain that there was no legal basis by which Rheon could owe such a duty, given that the company did not design the conveyor belt or ever assume such a duty voluntarily. As such, the estate’s claims relating to breach of duty failed as well.

The case is No. 16-10521-WGY.

Attorneys: Donald R. Grady, Jr. (Sheff Law Offices, PC) for Thiru Satchi. Holly M. Polglase (Hermes Netburn O'Connor & Spearing, PC) for Rheon USA.

Companies: Rheon USA

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