Products Liability Law Daily Electrical equipment maker not liable for mine electrician’s injuries
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Monday, November 14, 2016

Electrical equipment maker not liable for mine electrician’s injuries

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

The manufacturer of the motor control center of a mine’s electrical distribution system was not liable for electrical burns sustained by a worker when an uninsulated wrench he was using made contact with an energized component of the control center, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in a memorandum decisionaffirming a trial court decision granting summary judgment to the manufacturer (Howard v. Eaton Corp., November 10, 2016, per curiam).

The worker, who was employed by Arch Coal, removed protective barriers to gain access to the internal components of the Motor Control Center (MCC), which was energized by 480 volts. While tightening a bolt using two uninsulated wrenches, one of the wrenches made contact with an energized component of the MCC, causing an arc fault that burned him and a co-worker. The MCC was one of nine such products manufactured by Eaton Corp. Robertson P & E, Inc., an electrical contractor hired by Arch to design the electrical distribution system for use in Arch’s mine, ordered the MCCs from WESCO International, an electrical products distributor, which in turn placed an order with Eaton to build the MCCs to Robertson’s specifications. Robertson directed that seven of the nine MCCs include a main breaker disconnect switch to allow power to be disconnected downstream of the switch. The other two, including the one at issue, did not include such a switch because they would be integrated directly into the electrical distribution system. There were two separate means to de-energize these MCCs—a switching mechanism called a Gang Operated Air Brake (GOAB) or an insulated telescoping rod referred to as a "hot stick"—but the worker did not use either of these two mechanisms to de-energize the MCC before he began to work on it.

Arch required its employees to de-energize equipment before beginning to work on it, and the worker knew that the MCC was energized before he began work and was aware of the two mechanisms for de-energizing the MCC.

The worker filed strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty claims against Eaton, Arch, and other defendants, alleging that the MCC was inherently dangerous because it was designed and manufactured without a switch to de-energize the power circuits and without covers to protect users from contacting internal energized buss bars. The trial court granted summary judgment to Eaton, and the worker appealed.

Duty. Eaton had no duty to manufacture the MCC in compliance with West Virginia miners’ health, safety, and training rules because the worker had not demonstrated that these rules applied to Eaton as a manufacturer of custom electrical distribution systems.

Control. The decision whether to include a main breaker disconnect or other shutoff switch within the distribution system was within the exclusive control of Robertson and Arch, not Eaton. Robertson designed the electrical distribution system, selected the component parts, determined that the MCC at issue should not contain a main breaker disconnect and that a main lug only connection was appropriate because the MCC would be incorporated directly into the distribution system. Eaton did not inspect the mine at any time before or after the installation of the MCC and did not perform any maintenance on the MCC.

Failure to warn. Although the worker asserted that the methods for turning off the unit were unreasonable, Eaton could not be held liable for failure to warn because any warning defect was not the proximate cause of the worker’s injuries. The worker admitted that he knew of the dangers of working on or near energized equipment, knew that it was energized when he began working on it without de-energizing it, had been told by his supervisor to de-energize the MCC before beginning work and that there were warning labels and instructions attached to the MCC along with an instruction manual that warned of the dangers of working on energized equipment. He admitted that he had not read the affixed warnings or the manual, and there was no evidence that he would have read or heeded additional warnings if they had been provided.

Subsequent remedial measures. It was not necessary for a jury to consider that Robertson and Arch installed a shut-off switch between the MCC at issue and the fuse disconnects after the worker’s injury. The evidence did not show that Eaton took any measure that would have made the worker’s injury less likely to have occurred. Further, this issue was not raised in the worker’s response to Eaton’s summary judgment motion, and as a result the court declined to consider it.

The case is No. 16-0055.

Attorneys: Roger A. Decanio (The Masters Law Firm, L.C.) for Jobie Howard. Jonathan T. Barton (Sandberg Phoenix & Von Gontard PC) and Ancil G. Ramey (Steptoe & Johnson PLLC) for Eaton Corp.

Companies: Eaton Corp.

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