$3.5 Million Product Liability Verdict Reversed

Those who work within the manufacturing industry often rely heavily on large machinery to help them do their jobs. They have a right to expect those machines were thoughtfully designed and carefully manufactured so as to keep workers who use them safe.
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When that does not happen, workers usually have two options of civil remedy. The first is workers’ compensation benefits. Workers file these through their employer to cover their medical costs and a portion of lost wages while they recover. Critical injuries may warrant longer-term benefits, and a death usually entitles dependent relatives to workers’ compensation death benefits. Workers cannot additionally sue their employers for negligence. Workers’ compensation is almost always an exclusive remedy against an employer, as well as co-workers.

The second option for recovery is third-party liability. When a work-related accident was the result of a defective or dangerous machine, careful analysis by an experienced injury lawyer can help determine whether this is a viable option. These cases are often complicated, and, as the recent case of Kirkbride v. Terex USA reveals, they can present significant challenges. But when they are successful, injured workers may have the security of lifelong financial stability, with covered medical expenses and compensation for loss of earning capacity.

In the Kirkbride case, jurors did award $3.5 million to a worker who was injured by a reportedly defective rock crushing machine. However, that verdict was later reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

According to court records, this portable machine was made and sold in 1980. It was about the size of a semi-trailer, and it was designed to crush larger rocks into smaller rocks. The central issue in this case was whether the device had a defective “toggle plate” that was supposed to be useful when there were jaw-crusher jams. Essentially, it’s a safety device that helps when uncrushable material is encountered.

This machine changed hands several times before it was purchased by plaintiff’s employer. The company purchased a replacement toggle just a few months prior to this accident.

This accident happened in August 2008. Workers were running the machine when a large boulder got stuck in the crushing chamber. They shut down the feeder and tried unsuccessfully to pull the boulder out with a front end loader. A supervisor then called over plaintiff – a front end loader operator – for help. Workers turned the crusher back on and attempted to crush the large rock by lowering a metal ripper tooth into the chains. However, the tooth broke off and fell into the chamber, and the machine began to smoke. The toggle plate remained in place. Workers cut off power and finally managed to get the rock out, with plaintiff pulling it out with a chain attached to a track hoe. However, the ripper tooth was still stuck.

Plaintiff took a torch and climbed into the crusher and started cutting the tooth. Suddenly, the ripper tooth shot out of the machine, hitting plaintiff’s neck and jaw as it flew up nearly 30 feet.

Worker later filed a defective product lawsuit against the manufacturer of the machine, and jurors found the manufacturer liable for failure to warn users of the jaw crusher dangers, making a defective toggle plate and breach of implied warranty of merchantability with regard to the toggle plate. Plaintiff was awarded $3.5 million.

In its reversal, the federal appeals court found there was insufficient admissible evidence to for the jury to find liability of any of worker’s three theories. First, a warning was in fact issued in the company safety manual, warning workers to avoid doing exactly what plaintiff did by exposing his head to metal stuck in the jaws. Secondly, the court found the toggle plate was not defective, or at least, this fact was not proven because the only evidence establishing this came from an inadmissible and insufficient expert testimony. There was no indication the thickness of the plate (about 3/16ths larger than most toggle plates) rendered the machine as a whole unreasonably dangerous.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Kirkbride v. Terex USA, Aug. 25, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
State ex rel. Beisly v. Hon. Perigo – Civil Justice for Criminal Wrongs, Aug. 27, 2015, Spartanburg Injury Attorney Blog

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