Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Post-Tincher Products Decision out of Eastern District of PA

In the case of Hatcher v. SCM Group North America, Inc., No. 15-1630 (E.D. Pa. March 1, 2016 Schiller, J.), the Eastern District Federal Court addressed Post-Tincher products liability issues in a case in which a machinist Plaintiff alleged injuries to three (3) fingers while working with an industrial woodworking sawing machine.  

According to the Opinion, on the front of the machine, there was a warning label that stated, in capital letters, “DON’T RUN THE MACHINE WITHOUT NECESSARY SAFETY GUARDS.”  

The court additionally noted that the operation and maintenance manual that came with the machine explained in detail how to use and assemble the safety guards, including a fence system and the blade guard.   The manual contained the warning, “Before starting machine, make sure all guards are in place.”  

At the time of the incident, the blade guard was not in use.  

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff had been hired three (3) months before the accident to operate the subject machine.   However, the record before the court indicated that the Plaintiff had only used the machine once before the accident. 

Moreover, the Plaintiff had not received any formal training on the machine, aside from a demonstration with verbal instructions by the primary operator of that machine.  That demonstration with instructions took place on the date of the incident.  

The record confirmed that, prior to the accident, neither the Plaintiff, nor the primary operator of the machine had ever read the operating manual.  The Plaintiff also admitted that he never read the capital letters warning on the machine.    

Additionally, the Plaintiff and the primary operator of the machine, as well as other individuals, each testified that they never knew that a blade guard even existed for the machine.  

Other evidence indicated that the company had not had any problems with the machine since purchasing it at an auction over twenty-five (25) years before.   The primary operator, and another individual, testified that they still believed, despite the accident, that the machine was safe to use even without a blade guard.  

The Opinion also noted that the Plaintiff asserted that the blade guard would have prevented his injury and that he would not have used the machine without the blade guard if he had known it existed.  

The case came before the court on a summary judgment motion by the Defendant.  

The court noted that the Plaintiff initially presented four (4) claims in the Complaint:

                        (1)       Breach of Expressed and Implied Warranty;

                        (2)       Defective Manufacturing;

                        (3)       Defective Design, and,

                        (4)       Failure to Warn.

The court noted that the Plaintiff conceded that there was no manufacturing defect.   The Plaintiff also conceded that the Defendant’s evidence established that the Plaintiff’s breach of warranty claim was time barred.  

The court also found that the Plaintiff failed to distinguish between the defective design claim and the failure-to-warn claim, offering no evidence to support an independent defective design claim.  

The court additionally found that the Plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claim failed because the danger of the spinning blades on the machine was open and obvious and the existing warnings adequately addressed the danger of operating the machine without safety guards.  

Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment to the Defendant on all of the claims presented.  

In so ruling, the court held that extended periods of safe product use establishes that the alleged lack of proper warnings did not make the product “unreasonably dangerous.”   In its decision, the court also applied the pre-Tincher rule that there is no duty to warn of risk that only arises when existing warnings are ignored.  

Anyone wishing to read this Hatcher Opinion online may click this LINK and the Order HERE.

I send thanks to Attorney James M. Beck of the Philadelphia office of Reid Smith for bringing this case to my attention.  

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