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From Products Liability Law Daily, January 24, 2014

Molding machine maker not liable for worker’s injuries; employer’s conduct was a superseding cause

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

The manufacturer of an injection molding machine was not liable for an operator’s manufacturing and design defect claims because her employer’s actions acted as a superseding cause of her injuries. Furthermore, the manufacturer was not liable on a failure to adequately warn claim because the worker was injured doing exactly what the caution sticker warned against, despite the fact that she had read and understood the warning, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky held. Because the court granted summary judgment on all of the worker’s claims, the manufacturer was also entitled to summary judgment on claims by the employer’s insurer (Wilson v. Sentry Insurance, January 22, 2014, Hood, J.).

Background. Billie Jean Wilson was employed by Molding Solutions as the operator of a Repro 2000 P34W horizontal injection molding machine manufactured by Engel Canada, Inc. The machine reaches a temperature of 400 degrees F. and generates up to 100 tons of pressure. Her supervisor was making adjustments to the machine using its control panel while Wilson was operating the machine, and pressed a combination of buttons that caused the machine’s ejector plate to retract while Wilson’s left hand was inside the machine, pinching her hand and trapping it inside the machine. By the time other employees were able to free her hand by prying the machine open with crowbars, her hand was burned to the tendon. At the time of her injury, the machine was being operated in manual mode and the safety override switch was in the on position.

Wilson filed claims for defective manufacture, defective design, failure to warn, and breach of express and implied warranties against Engel in a Kentucky state court. Engel removed the case to federal court. Sentry Insurance, which was Molding Solutions’ insurance carrier, filed a complaint as an intervening plaintiff seeking reimbursement for its payment of workers compensation benefits. Engel moved for summary judgment.

Superseding cause. Even if the manufacturer was negligent in its manufacture or design of the molding machine, it could not be held liable because the conduct of the worker’s employer was a superseding cause of her injuries. The court found that the employer’s actions were so “extraordinary” that its intervening acts were unforeseeable by the manufacturer. The machine’s safety override switch was designed to stop or prevent the production process from operating when the operating gate was open when the switch was set in the off position. However, the employer’s operating procedure required the operator to use the machine while the safety override switch was set to the on position, which negated the machine’s safety features. Furthermore, the injury occurred while the worker had her hands inside the machine while the supervisor was altering the machine’s operating process, something that happened regularly, according to the worker. Another employee testified that this violated safety protocol. In addition, the employer modified the machine in an unusual way that created the pinch point that injured the worker. The modification of the machine, the required operating procedure, and the actions of the worker’s supervisor, which the court described as a “blatant disregard for the safety of its employees and of the safety protocols for using the machine,” combined to form the substantial factor that caused the worker’s injury.

Failure to warn. The manufacturer’s warning adequately warned of the dangers of foreseeable misuse of the machine. The worker asserted that the caution sticker applied to the machine ignored that additional pinch points were exposed while the machine was in manual mode while the safety override switch was in the on position, compared to when the machine was in semi-automatic mode while the switch was in the on position. However, the sticker warned of the dangers of pinch points regardless of which mode in which the machine was operated. The worker routinely ignored the warning, but this did not make it inadequate. She admitted that she had read the warning and understood it to mean that she should not put her hand in the machine while it was in use; therefore, she was injured while doing exactly what the caution sticker had warned her against.

The case number is 5:11-cv-344-JMH-REW.

Attorneys: Erik David Peterson (Mehr Fairbanks Trial Lawyers, PLLC) for Billie Jean Wilson. Mark J. Hinkel (Landrum & Shouse LLP) for Sentry Insurance Co. Kenneth P. Abbarno (Reminger & Reminger Co., L.P.A.) for Engel Canada Inc.

Companies: Sentry Insurance Co.; Engel Canada Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews DefensesLiabilityNews WarningsNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews KentuckyNews

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