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From Products Liability Law Daily, November 24, 2015

Feasibility of flesh detection technology cuts off table saw maker’s objection to damage award

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Applying the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that under the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the availability of a reasonable alternative design was only one factor used to determine whether a product was defective, a federal district court in Florida ruled that there was sufficient evidence to support a jury’s determination that the risks of a table saw that lacked flesh detection technology outweighed its benefits. In addition to denying the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on design defect claims, the court denied the manufacturer’s alternative motion for a new trial based on a number of evidentiary errors (Anderson v. Techtronic Industries North America, Inc., November 23, 2015, Byron, P).

Background. While using a Ryobi brand bench-top table saw manufactured by Techtronic Industries North America, Inc., to refinish cabinets, a user’s hand slipped forward unexpectedly and contacted the saw blade. The user’s ring, middle, and index fingers ultimately were amputated. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the user only as to his strict products liability–defective design claim, which was based on the manufacturer’s failure to include flesh detection technology in the design of the table saw. The court entered judgment in favor of the user in the amount of $26,949.37, which reflected a reduction based on the jury’s determination that the user was 75 percent negligent for his own injuries. The manufacturer filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law and, in the alternative, for a new trial.

Tests of defectiveness. Although all the parties had applied the law as stated in the Third Restatement of Torts, which requires a plaintiff to show a reasonable alternative design and to prove that the manufacturer’s omission of this alternative design rendered the product not reasonably safe, the Florida Supreme Court recently rejected the Third Restatement’s reasonable alternative design standard. In Aubin v. Union Carbide Corp. [see Products Liability Law Daily’s October 30, 2015 analysis], the Florida high court held that for purposes of strict products liability actions, the state applies the Second Restatement’s approach, which employs both the consumer expectations and the risk-utility theories for determining whether a product is defective and unreasonably dangerous. In this case, because the jury verdict form submitted by the parties did not ask the jury to identify under which theory they found the table saw defective, the court was only required to find sufficient evidence in the record to support one test of defectiveness.

According to the federal district court, the user of the table saw produced substantial evidence at trial to rebut or undermine the manufacturer’s arguments that (1) flesh detection technology was not reasonably available for the table saw at the time of manufacture; (2) the risks associated with the table saw were obvious; and (3) the manufacturer had instructed consumers on these risks with detailed warnings and instructions. Specifically, one of the manufacturer’s own engineering experts revealed that flesh detection technology would have been relatively simple to incorporate in the table saw in 2001 or 2002. The user also produced internal documents from the manufacturer and the other defendants indicating that adding flesh detection technology to the table saw in 2001 would have increased manufacturing costs by less than $100. Furthermore, the manufacturer’s power tool research and design expert admitted on cross-examination that adding this technology to the table saw would have increased the product’s weight by about 80 pounds, only slightly heavier than the average weight for similar saws.

The user also provided ample evidence from which the jury could infer that the named defendants and the power tool industry colluded to keep this technology out of its products, despite its feasibility at the time the table saw in question had been manufactured.

Finally, there was ample evidence in the form of a report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that the manufacturer and the power tool industry as a whole were well aware that table top saws like the one in this case posed a significant risk of injury both in terms of frequency and severity. The CPSC report also concluded that existing blade guards, warnings, and general consumer education were not enough to address the risk of injury.

Admissibility of industry standards. Turning to the manufacturer’s claims of evidentiary errors justifying a new trial, the court found no error in its refusal to admit evidence relating to Underwriters Laboratories Standard 987 (UL 987), a voluntary industry standard which advises that manufacturers should install a 3-in-1 blade guard on saws like the one at issue in this case. The manufacturer argued that because the table saw incorporated the 3-in-1 blade guard in accordance with UL 987, the table saw could not have been found to be defective. However, the issue at trial was not whether the table saw was defective because of the 3-in-1 blade guard but because it lacked flesh detection technology; UL 987 was irrelevant to that issue.

Expert witness testimony. The court rejected the manufacturer’s challenges to the qualifications of the saw user’s expert as well as to the reliability of his testimony. According to the court, the manufacturer’s objections to the witness’s qualifications ignored the bulk of the expert’s training and experience. As for the reliability of his testimony, the record showed that the expert’s report and trial testimony demonstrated that he had applied well-established engineering and scientific principles to test flesh detection technology, had described his testing procedures extensively, and had outlined, in detail, his results, observations, and calculations. The expert also tested the table saw model and based his opinions on his own testing. Finally, the expert supported his methodology through volumes of engineering handouts, standards, and treatises of uncontroverted reliability. Thus, there was no error in allowing the expert to offer his opinions on the issue of defective design and the efficacy and technological feasibility of flesh detection technology.

Subsequent remedial measures. The manufacturer fared no better on its claim that evidence regarding both actual and proposed design changes to the saw after its manufacture was inadmissible as a subsequent remedial measure and was irrelevant on the issue of whether the saw was defective and unreasonably dangerous. The feasibility of flesh detection technology at the time of the saw’s manufacture was a hotly contested issue throughout the trial. Thus, evidence of subsequent design changes made by the manufacturer of the saw in question and by other makers of table saws was relevant to prove the feasibility of precautionary methods. The evidence also was relevant to the question of whether that technology was available to the power tool industry as a whole and whether the manufacturer in this case could have reasonably incorporated flesh detection technology into the table saw at the time it was manufactured.

The case is No. 6:13-cv-1571-Orl-40TBS.

Attorneys: John K. Chapman (Heygood, Orr & Pearson) for William Anderson. Nicole Danielle Duga (Hill Ward Henderson, PA) for Techtronic Industries North America, Inc.; One World Technologies, Inc.; and Ryobi Technologies, Inc.

Companies: Techtronic Industries North America, Inc.; One World Technologies, Inc.; Ryobi Technologies, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory CourtDecisions DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews ExpertEvidenceNews EvidentiaryNews ToolsHardwareNews FloridaNews

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