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Product Liability – Defective design of diaper manufacturing machine – Absence of barrier guard over exposed rotating drive shaft – Absence of interlock – Plaintiff maintenance mechanic's right arm is drawn in while trying to make adjustments – Rotator cuff tear.

Cumberland County, NJ

The plaintiff, in his late 50s, a maintenance mechanic for a company that manufactured child and adult diapers, as well as under pad products for hospital beds, contended that the diaper machine, manufactured by the defendant in ________, was defectively designed because there were no guards over the exposed rotating drive shaft. The plaintiff also alleged the fence door should have had an interlock so that power to the machine would be shut off whenever the door was opened.

The plaintiff’s job was to ensure that the six factory machines were running properly. The machines were run 24/7 and diapers were being manufactured around-the-clock by three different shifts. On the day of the accident, one of the diaper machines developed a problem with the folding section of the machine. The machine was approximately 50 feet long. The problem with the folding mechanism resulted in the diapers not being folded correctly.

The subject machine was producing approximately 60 diapers a minute. The machine had an “operator” side, where the machine operators would be situated to run the paper product through the machine, and a “drive” side, where all the drive shafts, gears, chains, pulleys, sprockets and other moving parts were located. The moving parts on the drive side of the machine were guarded with a seven foot tall metal fence/cage that ran the entire length along the rear of the 50 foot machine. The fence had a series of seven foot doors that could be opened if a worker needed to have access to the drive shafts or other moving parts. Although the fence doors had latches, they were not locked and did not have interlocks, which would have shut off power to the machine whenever any of the doors were opened.

When the plaintiff realized that the folding portion of the machine was malfunctioning, he knew he needed to readjust one of the folding discs and brackets. This had been a recurring problem and plaintiff had made this adjustment on this machine about once per day on his shift. According to plaintiff, the machine’s vibration would loosen the bolts that held the folding discs and brackets in place. On the day of the accident, the plaintiff went to the drive side of the machine, opened the fence door, and entered the area of the machine where the folding mechanism was located. The plaintiff, however, did not turn the machine off before entering the fenced-in area of the machine.

The plaintiff testified that the machine had to be running when his adjustments were being made so he could see when the adjustments were done correctly. With the machine still running, and diaper products still being produced, the plaintiff began adjusting the bolts and brackets to the folding mechanism. As he tightened a bolt, his right arm got caught in a rotating drive shaft that ran horizontally, about three feet off the ground, along the machine. The steel drive shaft, which was one and a-half inches in diameter, had no guards on it. The exposed rotating drive shaft pulled plaintiff’s arm and shirt into the machine and he struggled to free his arm.

The plaintiff’s expert engineer opined that a simple sheet metal guard should have been manufactured and installed over the drive shaft to prevent a worker’s inadvertent contact with the drive shaft. He also opined that the fence guard should have had interlocks on all the doors so that once any door was opened, the machine’s power would shut off, and the plaintiff maintained that adjustments could have been made by the plaintiff with the power shut down. The plaintiff’s expert testified that these safety features were economically feasible in ________ and would not have impaired the function of the machine.

The defendant argued that its machine was not defectively designed in ________, that the fence guard that ran the entire length of the drive side of the machine was an adequate guard, and that plaintiff was negligent for not shutting off the machine’s power before working around the rotating drive shaft. The defendant also argued that the plaintiff’s employer was a proximate cause of the accident because of the inadequate safety policies in place at the time of the accident. Although the defendant had retained a liability expert, defense counsel did not call him at trial. Defense counsel argued that plaintiff should have shut the power off before working on the drive side of the machine around all the moving parts. He also argued that the fence served as an adequate guard.

The plaintiff moved in limine to bar comparative negligence under the Suter line of cases and this motion was denied. The defendant argued that plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encountered a dangerous condition. The defendant’s lead design engineer testified in discovery that there was only about 40% of the original ________ machine that was in place at the time of his inspection in ________ and the defendant contended that that the machine had been substantially modified by unknown prior owners between ________ and the accident date in ________. Most of the component parts and electrical systems were completely replaced. However, the subject drive shaft appeared to be the same as seen in the ________ and the plaintiff maintained that the machine was clearly defectively designed. The defendant’s expert did not testify at trial.

The plaintiff’s orthopedic expert opined that plaintiff’s right shoulder MRI revealed a complete tear of the rotator cuff, which was related to the machine accident. The plaintiff’s expert recommended shoulder surgery, but the plaintiff never had the surgery because he did not want to miss more time from work. The plaintiff’s expert opined that the rotator cuff tear would never heal on its own. The plaintiff also showed the jury two scars on his arm and shoulder that were from the accident. The defendant did not use any medical experts at trial.

The plaintiff did not assert a wage loss claim. He was able to return to work after the accident.The jury found that the machine was not defectively designed and did not address the issue of whether the plaintiff voluntarily encountered a known risk.

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