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From Products Liability Law Daily, February 18, 2015

Injured consumer’s claims that table saw was defective go to trial

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

A consumer’s strict liability design defect claims against the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of a table saw that injured him will proceed to trial, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled in denying summary judgment to the defendants. In doing so, the court applied the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s new standard from Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., for determining whether a product was defective (Nathan v. Techtronic Industries North America, Inc., February 17, 2015, Mariani, R.).

Background. William Nathan purchased a Model TS2400-1 table saw in 2007 that weighed 122 pounds and cost $399. The saw contained a blade guard assembly, but Nathan removed it because it interfered with his ability to make narrow cuts. In 2011, he was injured while making a rip cut in a narrow piece of wood. Nathan brought strict liability and negligence claims for design defect and failure to warn theories, along with breach of implied warranty claims, against manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of the saw. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no reasonable alternative design for any of the alleged design defects and the accident was caused by Nathan’s misuse of the saw. They also argued that he could not prevail on the failure to warn theory and that his breach of warranty claims were untimely; Nathan agreed to dismiss these latter claims.

According to Nathan, the defendants had been aware for at least 10 years prior to his injury that users of table saws often removed blade guards due to design problems; he asserted that the “3-in-1” blade guard included with the saw impeded visibility, hindered small and narrow cuts, was incompatible with certain cutting operations, easily became misaligned, and was difficult to replace once removed. The defendants disputed his assertion that the guard was difficult to install. The parties also disputed whether Nathan would have been injured if the blade guard had not been removed.

He also argued that his injuries would have been less serious or avoided altogether had the saw incorporated flesh-detection technology. This technology, which causes a saw blade to stop completely about three milliseconds after contact with human skin, was developed in 1999 by Dr. Stephen Gass. Dr. Gass introduced this technology to saw manufacturers in 2000; they licensed it from him in 2002 and formed a joint venture in 2003 that developed its own prototype in 2005. Dr. Gass formed SawStop, LLC, and placed on the market in 2004 a table saw using his technology. Nathan argued this technology could have been incorporated into the type of saw that he had purchased for about $50 to $100, but the defendants argued that doing so would have required an overhaul of its basic design significantly increasing its size and weight and would have cost more.

Tincher. The district court stated that it would follow the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s adoption of a new standard of proof for determining in strict liability cases whether a product is defective. In Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., the state high court ruled that a plaintiff may prove a defective condition using either the consumer expectations test or the risk-utility test. While the Tincher court declined to state whether the new standard applied retroactively, the district court found that it did. Tincher had announced a new rule of law, and applying it retroactively would serve its purpose by giving the plaintiff greater flexibility to prove defect. The rule provided that determining whether a product was defective is a question for a jury; applying it retroactively would relieve the court of the need to decide issues of law and policy. The parties would not be unfairly prejudiced due to reliance on the old rule or by having the jury rather than the court balance risks and utility, and no second set of proceedings would be necessary because the case is still in the pre-trial stage. Therefore, the Tincher decision did not represent an exception to the general rule that changes in the law are applied retroactively.

Design defect/flesh-detection technology. Whether the absence of flesh-detection technology made the table saw defective was an issue to be decided at trial. The defendants argued that it was not a feasible alternative design when the consumer’s saw was manufactured in 2006, stating that the inventor’s company sells only industrial cabinet saws, professional cabinet saws, and contractor saws, none of which are comparable to a small benchtop table saw. However, the court found that the defendants had “utterly failed” to show the absence of a triable issue because their statement of undisputed facts was “completely devoid” of facts that were probative of the feasibility, cost, and effectiveness of flesh-detection technology. They addressed only the burdens of taking precautions, not the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the saw. The consumer proffered opinions by experts that this technology was feasible for small, lightweight saws, and while the parties disputed the cost of adding this technology to a benchtop table saw, the court was required to take the consumer’s version as true for purposes of the defendants’ summary judgment motion. Finally, the consumer presented data regarding the social costs and frequency of table saw accidents and the effectiveness of this technology in preventing them.

Design defect/independent riving knife. The issue of whether the failure to equip the saw with an independent riving knife could not be resolved on summary judgment. The court first found that the defendants had not made any factual assertions in their statement of undisputed facts regarding the lack of a knife, which was sufficient by itself to deny summary judgment. Further, the defendants’ own materials cited to the consumer’s expert’s report, which stated that table saws with an independent riving knife had been in use since 1917 and had long been used in Europe. The expert also stated that this type of knife protected a user from a kickback, and it was probable that a kickback event had occurred in this case. Finally, table saws with an independent riving knife could be designed to comply with U.S. standards.

Design defect/blade guard assembly. The issue of whether the absence of a “user-friendly blade guard” made the saw defective must be resolved at trial. The parties presented a factual dispute regarding problems with the blade guard assembly, so summary judgment was not appropriate.

Misuse. The defendants were not entitled to summary judgment based on the affirmative defense of misuse because they could not show that there was no genuine dispute that the blade guard would have prevented the accident. The consumer had removed the guard against the warnings on-product and in the manual, but the defendants produced no evidence that the failure to use the blade guard was the sole proximate cause of the accident. Further, the consumer’s expert opined that even if the guard has been present, the consumer’s hand would have slid under the guard and contacted the blade.

The case is No. 3:12-CV-00679.

Attorneys: Richard J. Sullivan (Sullivan & Sullivan LLP) for William D. Nathan. Rosario M. Vignali (Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker) for Techtronic Industries Co., Ltd., Techtronic Industries North America, One World Technologies, Ryobi, and Home Depot.

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

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews ToolsHardwareNews PennsylvaniaNews

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