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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 5, 2015

Ravioli machine maker must face injured worker's design defect claim

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

In an injured maintenance worker’s action against the manufacturer of a ravioli machine, in which the worker’s arm became caught in its gears, genuine issues of fact persisted as to the worker’s design defect claim for resolution at trial, a New York appellate court held, affirming a lower court’s ruling. However, the court determined that the trial court should have granted judgment as a matter of law to the manufacturer on the worker’s claim that the manufacturer’s warnings were inadequate (Barclay v. Techno-Design, Inc., June 4, 2015, Lynch, M.).

Background. Robert John Barclay, Jr., a maintenance worker at Codino’s Food, Inc., was injured when his arm became entangled in the gears of a ravioli machine. The machine, manufactured by Techno-Design, Inc., was designed to produce 10,000 pounds of ravioli in an hour. The machine was equipped with adjustable components to allow for the production of a variety of types and sizes of pasta and with several nozzles that filled the pasta with cheese. In addition, the machine was designed with three areas to access its interior workings, including a side door that could be opened to remove the components and nozzles for adjustments and cleaning. Unlike the two other access areas, the side door did not have an interlock device that automatically shut the machine down once the door was opened. This was, in part, because maintenance mechanics occasionally had to watch the machine as it was operating in order to troubleshoot issues that arose.

In February 2008, Barclay reached into the side access door to adjust one of the cheese nozzles. Even though this task required him to reach six inches past a visible, moving gear into the machine and blindly twist one of the nozzles with an Allen wrench, he did not shut off the machine, nor did he use the access area at the rear of the machine that would have permitted him to see and adjust any of the nozzles easily. Within one minute of reaching into the machine, his jacket sleeve became caught in the gear and his arm was pulled in, causing “serious and disfiguring injuries.” In March 2010, the worker brought a negligence action sounding in products liability against the ravioli machine manufacturer, which, in turn, moved for summary judgment to dismiss the worker’s claims. The trial court partially denied the motion, finding that there were questions of fact precluding summary dismissal of all but the worker’s claim that Techno-Design defectively manufactured the ravioli machine. The manufacturer appealed. The issues before the appellate court were whether the ravioli machine was defectively designed (presenting an unreasonable risk of harm to the user) and whether the manufacturer’s warnings were adequate.

Design defect claim. Under New York law, for a successful cause of action for defective design, a plaintiff must establish “that the manufacturer breached its duty to market safe products when it marketed a product designed so that it was not reasonably safe and that the defective design was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff's injury.” A showing that there was a substantial likelihood of harm and that “it was feasible to design the product in a safer manner” was required. A defendant can defeat this claim by demonstrating, by way of a “risk-utility analysis,” that the product’s “utility outweighs its risks [because] the product has been designed so that the risks are reduced to the greatest extent possible while retaining the product’s inherent usefulness at an acceptable cost.” Risk-utility factors for consideration include: the product’s utility to the public as a whole; its utility to the individual user; the likelihood that the product will cause injury; the availability of a safer design; and the manufacturer’s ability to spread the cost of any safety-related design changes.

The court found that issues of fact persisted on the worker’s design defect claim and affirmed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment on the issue. In evidence of safe design, the manufacturer submitted an affidavit by the designer of the ravioli machine who stated that he designed the machine with three emergency switches, one at each side and one at the back that could immediately shut down the machine. In addition, he explained that he included interlocking switches that automatically shut the machine down at the access area located in the back of the machine and at the front access area, which could be opened to adjust the dough. He also recalled that when he delivered the machine to the worker’s employer, he stated that the appropriate way to adjust the cheese nozzles was to access them from the back, not the door at the side of the machine, which was intended to be used by the operators to remove parts for cleaning and to observe the machine as it was running. He further explained that, because an interlock device would prevent this type of observation, he did not include it on the side access door. According to the designer, there were no federal or state safety regulations applicable to the design of the ravioli machine, he had never been informed that anyone had been injured on any similarly designed machine, and the machine was reasonably safe as designed.

The court found the submissions by the manufacturer were sufficient to shift the burden to the worker to offer proof that there was a substantial likelihood of harm and that it was feasible to design the product in a safer manner. The worker provided an affidavit by an engineer with experience in industrial design and manufacturing. The engineer explained that because the side door did not prevent, but rather invited, access to the machine parts, the designer should have anticipated that a person might reach into the machine as it was running. Moreover, the engineer said that even if installing an interlocking switch was not feasible, it was feasible to design the side access with a mesh or screen overlay, covered with see-through plexiglass or an interlocked plexiglass door (like the other access areas) to prevent access to moving parts.

Given the disagreement between the machine designer and the engineer, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that factual questions remained as to the worker’s defective design claim and were for the finder of fact to resolve at trial.

Adequacy of warnings. On the worker’s claims based on the adequacy of the machine manufacturer’s warnings, however, the court found that judgment should have been granted for the manufacturer. Under New York law, a manufacturer generally has a duty to warn against latent dangers resulting from foreseeable uses of its product of which it knew or should have known, as well as “to warn of the danger of [reasonably foreseeable] unintended uses of a product.” In addition, while a manufacturer can be liable for a failure to warn against the dangers of foreseeable misuse of its product, the court noted that there was a “limited class of hazards” that did not require warning as a matter of law because they were considered patently dangerous or posed open and obvious risks. Under those circumstances, the manufacturer’s duty to warn could be avoided if the injured party had “actual knowledge of the specific hazard that caused the injury.”

In the current case, no warning was posted at the side access door of the machine as to the hazard of reaching into the machine while it was operating. However, the worker had worked on the ravioli machine for about 10 years. He also acknowledged that he was aware that he was not supposed to access the cheese nozzles from the side without first shutting down the machine. Thus, the court concluded that in light of the worker’s extensive experience, it was not persuaded by the worker’s attempt to distinguish the risk posed by a jacket sleeve as compared to his bare arm while reaching into the operating ravioli machine. The worker had to reach past the ravioli machine’s clearly visible moving gears. Given this obvious danger, and because the worker, who was aware of the specific entanglement risk and the appropriate way to avoid the risk, would not have benefitted from a warning, the appellate court determined that the trial court should have ruled in the manufacturer’s favor on its motion for summary judgment and dismissed the worker’s claim based on the inadequacy of the warnings.

Substantial modification defense. The court held that given the questions of fact as to the worker’s defective design claims and because there were questions with regard to whether the ravioli machine was purposefully designed to be used without the side door in place, the trial court’s denial of summary judgment based on a substantial modification defense was proper. The court noted that whether or not the side door was in place, access to the interior moving parts was readily available.

The case is No. 519979.

Attorneys: Melissa J. Smallacombe (Burke, Scolamiero, Mortati and Hurd, LLP) for Techno-Design, Inc. Jonathan B. Tingley (Tuczinski, Cavalier & Gilchrist, PC) for Robert John Barclay, Jr.

Companies: Techno-Design, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews NewYorkNews

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