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Sullivan County, N.H.

This was a products liability action brought by the female plaintiff gentlewoman farmer, in her mid-50’s at the time of the subject incident, against the defendant manufacturer of a tractor equipped with a rear engine. The plaintiff alleged that the tractor’s rear engine configuration was defectively designed, as a result of which her thumb came in contact with the rotating plastic screen, a part of the engine which serves to filter the air flowing through the engine. The plaintiff contended that upon contacting the screen, her right thumb was drawn into the cut out area, where it was crushed and lacerated. The plaintiff maintained that she sustained permanent impairment to her right dominant hand as a result of the subject accident.

The tractor in question was manufactured with a rear engine incorporating an exposed rotating grass screen mounted over an air intake and utilizing a stationary upper bar in close proximity with the grass screen to remove debris as it rotates to filter the air flowing through the engine. The grass screen was constructed of plastic and attached to a fly wheel by four screws with rounded raised heads above the surface of the screen. The deflector bar was designed with a cut-out relief to allow the raised screws to pass as the screen rotates. At the time of the subject accident, the plaintiff was in the process of attaching a ball and socket trailer hitch to the ball. The hitch plate was in close proximity to the motor, which the plaintiff had left running while she attached the trailer hitch, and the lever on the hitch operated towards the tractor. The plaintiff contended that while she was in the process of pushing the lever on the hitch down with her dominant hand, her thumb made contact with the rotating screen and was pulled into the cut out and trapped there, where it was crushed and torn as she attempted to extricate her hand.

The plaintiff’s expert engineer testified that the subject tractor was defectively designed in that the engine configuration incorporated an exposed moving part with crushing and tearing capability, which he maintained constituted a uncovered nip point. The plaintiff’s expert asserted that the danger created by the exposed nip point was compounded by the fact that it was situated in close proximity to an area where it was foreseeable that people would have occasion to perform various functions with the tractor motor running. This expert further maintained that the movement of the screen was not readily apparent and that the tractor lacked adequate warnings regarding the dangers posed by the rotating screen. The plaintiff’s expert contended that the defendant manufacturer should have used an alternate design which would have served to accomplish the same function. The plaintiff’s expert cited the engine configuration presently installed by the defendant on it’s tractors which virtually eliminates the risk allegedly created by the subject design in that it lacks the raised screw head and cut out area.

The defendant manufacturer’s in-house safety expert asserted that the rotating moving screen did not constitute a nip point and contended that the engine configuration was reasonably safe and designed in accordance with all applicable standards. The defendant maintained that the subject accident was a freak occurrence which could only have occurred if the plaintiff had affirmatively jammed her thumb into the cut out area. Defense counsel performed a demonstration in which he stuck his thumb against the screen as it rotated, showing that his thumb would not be drawn into the cut out area. The defendant presented evidence establishing that although the defendant had manufactured and sold in excess of ________ machines with similar engine configurations, it had received not one report of an accident or injury associated with this particular engine. The defendant further cited six or seven separate instructions set forth in the accompanying product manual which indirectly address the situation faced by the plaintiff and which, if followed by the plaintiff, would have prevented the accident. As an example, the defendant pointed to the specific instruction advising the operator to always turn the power off when alighting from the tractor seat.

The laceration and crushing injury to the tip of the thumb suffered by the plaintiff necessitated that the thumb be sewn up and splinted. The plaintiff presented $________ in medical specials and made no claim for lost earnings. The jury found for the defendant. Plaintiff’s expert engineer: Igor Paul. Stanley Gerhune vs. Clarke Gravely Co. Case no. 87/C/________; Judge Morrill, 11-3-88. Attorney for plaintiff: David L. Nixon of Nixon, Hall & Ness in Manchester, N.H.; Attorney for defendant: Samuel Hoar of Dinse, Erdman & Clapp in Burlington, Vt.

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