By Susan Engstrom
A worker who was injured while operating a metal recycling machine known as an "alligator shear" could pursue design defect claims against the product’s vendor, the federal court in New Jersey ruled, denying the vendor’s motion for summary judgment. Although the worker had not been using the machine’s safety guard when the accident occurred, the fact that the machine was operable without it was a foreseeable misuse of the product. In addition, a jury could find that the alternative designs proposed by the worker’s expert could have eliminated the hazard at nominal cost. Moreover, even though the worker’s own actions might have caused or contributed to the accident, the fact that a defective design may have contributed to or amplified the severity of his injuries undermined summary judgment for the vendor. Finally, the court rejected the vendor’s argument that the opinion of the worker’s expert was an unreliable net opinion (Benitez v. JMC Recycling Systems Ltd., June 28, 2017, Rodriguez, J.).
An alligator shear is a machine used to cut and manipulate scrap metal by placing the metal between two blades that resemble an alligator’s jaws. The machine is equipped with a safety guard (also referred to as a cage guard or blade guard) that covers the blades during operation if it is manually pulled down. However, the machine still operates even when the cage guard is not utilized. On the day of the accident, the cage guard was not used. The worker alleged that he was injured when he used the alligator shear to cut a copper pipe and he tripped on materials and debris on the floor, causing him to lose his balance. To brace himself for a fall, he placed his left hand onto the engaged alligator shear, causing significant injury to three fingers on his left hand. He filed suit against the vendor of the machine, Strip Technology, Inc. (Strip Tech), asserting design defect claims under the New Jersey Products Liability Act (NJPLA). Strip Tech moved for summary judgment.
Design defect. A successful design defect claim under the NJPLA requires that the product was defective, that the defect existed when the product left the defendant’s control, and that the defect caused injury to a reasonably foreseeable user. To establish a design defect at the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff bears the burden to demonstrate, under a "risk-utility" analysis, the existence of an alternative design that is both practical and feasible.
In this case, although the parties agreed that the risks associated with the use of the alligator shear were high and that operation of the machine could be hazardous, there were several other factors at play. For example, the worker testified that he never used the cage guard while operating the machine and never saw any of his coworkers use it. He also said that his employer had advised him that the cage guard was intended to be a safety mechanism, but that it was not operational. In addition, he testified that debris was common in the area of the machine. According to the worker’s expert, inadequate guarding, among other factors, caused the accident at issue. The expert opined that the fact that the machine was operational when the guard cage was not used created an inherent danger. The expert’s opinion offered five alternative designs, including a protective cage and hand restraints, all of which are used in the industry.
According to the court, the fact that the machine was operable without engaging the safety cage was a foreseeable misuse of the product, and Strip Tech owed the worker a duty to prevent an injury caused by the foreseeable misuse of its product. It also was foreseeable that a machine which cuts metal will be operated in a setting that is not devoid of debris. In addition, if the machine is operable without the engagement of the safety function, common sense dictates that a foreseeable user would forgo using the safety cage. On that record, the court found that the circumstances of the worker’s accident, e.g., using the machine without the safety cage, were foreseeable. The evidence also showed that a jury could find that the proposed alternative designs could have eliminated the hazard at a minimal cost. Thus, the vendor was not entitled to summary judgment on the design defect claim.
Proximate cause. Summary judgment also was denied on the issue of proximate cause, even though there were many factors that might have contributed to the incident (such as the worker’s use of the machine without the safety guard). Because a defective design might have contributed to or amplified the severity of the worker’s injuries, the vendor still could be found liable for a design defect.
Expert testimony. The court also denied the vendor’s motion to preclude the testimony of the worker’s expert. In the court’s view, the testimony was reliable and, to some degree, based on common sense. Although the expert’s testimony regarding alternative designs was thin, it satisfied the reliability criteria of Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. In addition, because the proposed alternative designs were recognized within the industry, the expert’s failure to test them did not undermine their reliability.
The case is No. 13-2737.
Attorneys: Barry A. Cooke (Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, PA) for Anthony Benitez. Abigail Rossman (Haworth Coleman & Gerstman, LLC) for Strip Technology Inc. Ruth V. Simon (Clausen Miller PC) for JMC Recycling Systems Ltd.
Companies: Strip Technology Inc.; JMC Recycling Systems Ltd.
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