By Harold S. Berman, J.D.
A UPS mechanic who lost four fingers while maintaining a conveyor machine could proceed with his strict liability claim against the manufacturers, given the widely diverging testimony offered by the mechanic’s and companies’ experts. His negligent duty to warn claim failed.
A UPS mechanic whose fingers were crushed when the booms of a conveyor machine he was servicing suddenly moved could proceed with his strict liability claim against the manufacturers because the question of whether the machine’s design was defective, or whether feasible alternative designs existed, was fiercely disputed by the expert witnesses, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled. However, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the mechanic’s negligent duty to warn claim, concluding that the companies provided an adequate warning in the service manual regarding the possibility of injury from the booms, but the mechanic never read the warnings (Elgert v. Siemens Industry, Inc., March 22, 2019, Slomsky, J.).
A mechanic for UPS was responsible for servicing conveyor machines used to sort packages at a UPS warehouse. In July 2015, the mechanic was severely injured while repairing a conveyor machine at his UPS facility. As he attempted to replace clutch pads, he did not tighten bolts on the side of the machine, causing it to drift. The drive sprocket then rotated suddenly, extending the booms, which struck the mechanic’s left hand. The booms severely crushed several of his fingers, which ultimately had to be amputated.
The conveyor machine’s manual warned users to anchor the booms during maintenance, and that failure to do so and to follow other prescribed safety precautions could result in serious injury. However, the manual did not instruct the user how to mechanically lock or anchor the machine, and the manufacturers last provided in-person informal training in 2008. Nor did UPS have written procedures in place as required by OSHA.
The employee testified that, before his accident, he had performed maintenance on the conveyor machine approximately 50 times, and clutch pad maintenance approximately ten times. He had not been trained how to secure the machine’s booms while replacing clutch pads.
The mechanic sued several related companies that manufactured, produced and distributed the conveyor machine, alleging strict liability and negligence.
Strict liability. The court denied summary judgment on the employee’s strict liability claim, finding disputed factual issues when analyzing the claim under the risk-utility standard. The safety aspect of the conveyor machine was disputed, with both the mechanic and the companies offering widely diverging expert opinions as to whether an alternative design would make the machine safer.
The mechanic’s expert concluded that the machine was defectively designed, and that alternative designs existed that could have eliminated the inherent risks, such as including an alternative energy isolation device, or threaded bolt design to secure the booms. Conversely, the companies’ expert maintained that the mechanic’s injuries were not caused by any design or manufacturing defect.
The experts also disagreed about whether the probability and seriousness of the harm outweighed the burden and cost of installing a lockout system to anchor the boom, i.e., whether the companies could remove the unsafe aspects of the machine without compromising its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility. It also was disputed whether the mechanic would have exercised due care by being alert to the warnings and following appropriate instructions.
The companies provided no specific written safety instructions, and had last conducted on-site training in 2008. Nevertheless, the mechanic’s claims were the only reported claims that ever had alleged a defect of the conveyor machine resulting in personal injury, despite nearly 1,500 units in use for over two decades. Given the lack of previous injuries, the companies contended that the mechanic’s anomalous injury could have been avoided had he read the UPS service manual, which he admitted he did not do. The accident report also stated that the mechanic was injured because he failed to anchor the booms or tighten the clutch pad.
Negligence. The court dismissed the employee’s negligence claim, which was premised on the theory that the companies negligently failed to warn him of the dangers of the conveyor machine. The companies fulfilled their duty to provide a reasonable and adequate warning of the machine’s inherent dangers because they warned in the service manual that the booms possibly could telescope and injure a mechanic if they were not properly anchored during maintenance. The mechanic did not dispute that the warning appeared in the service manual, but admitted that he never read the manual. Nor did the mechanic respond in his opposition to summary judgment to the companies’ arguments regarding his negligence claim.
The case is No: 17-1985.
Attorneys: Victor Paul Bucci, II (Laffey Bucci & Kent LLP) for Sean Elgert. Charles Scott Toomey (Littleton Park Joyce Ughetta & Kelly LLP) for Siemens Industry, Inc. and Siemens Postal, Parcel & Airport Logistics, LLC. Samuel W. Silver (Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP) for Dematic Corp.
Companies: Siemens Industry, Inc.; Siemens Postal, Parcel & Airport Logistics, LLC; Dematic Corp.
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