By Susan Engstrom
Defects in the component’s design and warnings/instructions were "producing causes" of the plaintiff’s injury, jury finds.
A Texas federal jury awarded $4,054,500 in compensatory damages to a worker who was injured when the water system component of a road repairing machine fell on him while the component was being held in storage. According to the jury, the manufacturer of the component, Asphalt Zipper, Inc., was 100 percent at fault for the worker’s injuries (Pruitt v. Asphalt Zipper, Inc., October 28, 2020).
The worker was an employee of a county road department in Texas. On the day of the incident, he was at work when the water system component fell on him. As a result, he suffered a near amputation above the ankle. The component was not in use at that time but, rather, was being stored by his employer.
Water system component. In his complaint, the worker explained that the water system component is intended to be used in conjunction with the Asphalt Zipper machine to provide water for the machine to extend its bit life and aid in compaction. The machine itself is used to pulverize and "reclaim" asphalt for, among other uses, street patches, full road repairs, and base stabilization. The water system component weighs about 200 pounds empty.
When being stored, the water system component is held up by three legs: one on the back of the component and one on either side. According to the worker, a metal pin is supposed to hold the leg tightly in place, but on the subject component, the leg was not held in place because the hole for the pin was misshapen, causing the pin to fit incorrectly. As a result, the leg could rotate forward and backward up to five inches. This excess movement allowed the component’s center of gravity to shift in front of its support points, which contributed to the instability of the component while it was being stored. The fact that it was empty at the time also contributed to the instability because the additional weight when full would have shifted the center of gravity so that the component might not have fallen, the worker said. His complaint also maintained that there were no warnings or instructions on the component cautioning users on proper storage procedures.
Causes of action. The worker asserted strict products liability claims against Asphalt Zipper, alleging that the water system component was defectively designed because the poor-fitting pin on the component’s leg allowed it to move excessively. He also contended that the component was designed in a way that rendered it more unstable when stored empty. According to the complaint, Asphalt Zipper could have designed the component with a better-fitting pin and with four legs instead of three, and could have taken into account the difference in the component’s center of gravity when stored empty or full. In addition, the worker alleged that the company failed to warn potential and actual users of the dangers and risk of the defects. In his view, the company should be held strictly liable because its failure to properly design and manufacture the component was the direct and proximate cause of his injuries.
The worker also asserted claims for negligence and gross negligence, and his wife brought a claim for loss of consortium. They both sought compensatory and exemplary damages.
Jury verdict. The matter was tried before a jury, which concluded that there was a design defect in the water system component at the time it left Asphalt Zipper’s possession and that this defect was a producing cause of the worker’s injury. The jury also found that there was a defect in the component’s warnings or instructions when it left the company’s possession that was a producing cause of the incident in question. However, the jury determined that Asphalt Zipper was not negligent in warning or instructing as to the use of the component. In addition, the jury found no negligence on the part of the worker, assigning 100 percent of the fault to Asphalt Zipper.
The jury awarded a total of $4,054,500 in compensatory damages, broken down in the following amounts: $75,000 for past physical pain; $1,000,000 for future physical pain; $50,000 for past mental anguish (nothing for future mental anguish); $60,000 for past loss of earning capacity; $1,343,000 for future loss of earning capacity; $1,500 for past disfigurement (nothing for future disfigurement); $50,000 for past physical impairment; $925,000 for future physical impairment; $125,000 for past medical expenses; and $425,000 for future medical expenses.
The case is No. 6:18-CV-324.
Attorneys: Robert Stem, Jr. (Law Office of Robert Stem) for Chuck Pruitt. Daniel Paul Buechler (Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, LLP) for Asphalt Zipper, Inc.
Companies: Asphalt Zipper, Inc.
MainStory: TopStory JuryVerdictsNewsStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews DamagesNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews TexasNews
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