industrial accident attorney, on-the-job product liability

Caterpillar death case settled on eve of trial

Beasley Allen has settled a wrongful death case that was set for trial in Barbour County, Alabama, on Jan 6. The case involved a Caterpillar D4C Series bulldozer. Jeffrey Danner, the owner of the bulldozer, was killed on April 21, 2017. He was getting off the bulldozer when he inadvertently bumped the gearshift mechanism into reverse gear. The dozer was designed, and it was intended by Caterpillar that operators would step onto the track going into and exiting off the machine.

Caterpillar designed a metal guard to prevent inadvertent bumping of the controls of the machine. However, the guard was grossly inadequate, ineffective, and violated CAT’s own design standards. Because of the defective design, Mr. Danner’s body contacted the control handle while he was exiting the dozer, causing the machine to go into reverse as he was stepping onto the track. The motion of the track carried Mr. Danner to the rear of the dozer where he was overrun.

Caterpillar has known for years that operators are required to get on and off the machines by stepping on the track. If a person is exiting the machine and bumps a control handle, it can result in the machine activating and carrying the person either toward the front or toward the rear of the machine, depending on whether the machine is bumped into forward or reverse.

Caterpillar knew that control handles were required to be properly guarded. Caterpillar’s design guidelines state that the control handles must be guarded to prevent exactly what happened in this case.

However, the control handles on this dozer were not properly guarded. The machine was defective by design.

There were alternative designs available that would have prevented this machine from going into reverse at the time Mr. Danner exited the machine. In particular, there is a lockout device that could have been designed to prevent Mr. Danner from exiting the machine without locking the controls into neutral.

The actual guard on the control handles could have been designed so that it would not allow Mr. Danner to contact the control handles when entering or exiting the machine. The machine could have been designed with an operator presence system that would have prevented the machine from moving while no operator is in the operator position.

In addition, and most important, Caterpillar failed to warn of the dangers associated with getting off the machine without completely locking the control lever into the neutral position. There is no warning of this danger in the operator’s manual, nor is there a warning on the dozer. There were alternative warnings that could have been used that would have alerted the operator to the dangers associated with failing to lock the machine into neutral.

Caterpillar knew for years, based on other incidents, that improperly guarded machines could result in serious injury or death. Caterpillar knew that failing to warn in particular could result in severe injury or death. Caterpillar knew that there is no utility in a bulldozer operating without an operator in the control position. Caterpillar knew that people could be thrown from or bumped off machines, and without proper protection, that could result in severe injury or death.

The corporate representative in this case for Caterpillar admitted the alternative designs were feasible at the time this machine was originally designed and sold.

The case was settled for a confidential amount after mediation and following a subsequent pretrial before Judge Burt Smithart. Greg Allen, Shane Seaborn, Will Partin, and this writer represented the Danner family. Stephanie Monplaisir handled all the pretrial hearings and briefing in this important case. Greg did a terrific job in investigating this case and in pretrial discovery.

This story appears in the January 2020 issue of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like this, visit the Report online and subscribe.

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