A jury in Conecuh County, Alabama, awarded our client John Dees $774,000 for on-the-job injuries he suffered while working for Onin Staffing, LLC at Tenax Manufacturing Alabama, LLC. Mr. Dees was injured on a machine manufactured by Tenax SPA, an Italian Company. The jury determined that Tenax SPA acted wantonly due to its failure to guard against the machine’s known defect. Tenax SPA designed the machine with an inadequate guard, prohibited by both U.S. and European design standards.
The manufacturing plant made netting used for erosion control. The netting is heated and stretched before final preparation on RAM machine. The RAM process required Mr. Dees to manually guide the netting through rollers that create an in-running nip point.
While working on the RAM IV machine at Tenax in January 2015, Mr. Dees was feeding netting into the long tubular stretching machine’s system of rollers when his finger was caught. As stated above, the machine lacked adequate safety guards and safety devices to shut the machine off and otherwise protect workers. Mr. Dees’ finger, left hand and arm, up to his shoulder, were pulled into the machine. Following the incident, Mr. Dees lost partial use of his arm and has been left permanently disfigured.
The subject RAM machine was designed and manufactured in Italy, and then sold for use in Alabama. Mr. Dees’ injury in Alabama was not the first time someone had been injured on the same design. Three years before Mr. Dees’ incident, an employee of the Italian manufacturer was injured when he was threading the rollers and his fingers were pulled under the circular guard. Mr. Dees’ injury occurred when his hand was pulled into the nip over the top of the circular guard.
After an investigation into the Italian accident, an expert safety consultant examined the incident and the guard. He then prepared a report that stated that the design of the circular guard violated the benchmark safety standard. The subject benchmark standard, a European Union standard, prohibited the use of circular guards to protect user from the in-running nip point. In response to the Italian accident, the manufacturer changed the guard in Italy to comply with the applicable safety standard. The manufacturer, however, did not inform the Alabama employer of the accident, the expert’s findings and recommendation, nor of their change of the safety guard.
Even after the filing of Mr. Dees’ suit and years of discovery, the Italian manufacturer never informed the Alabama employer of this important information. The Alabama employer was informed by Evan Allen, a Beasley Allen lawyer, during a deposition. Needless to say, both the Plant Manager and Director of Safety of the Alabama employer testified that they needed this information and they would have acted to change the shape of the guard if they had known of the prohibition of its use.
Plaintiff’s expert engineer in the Dees case did a good job of explaining why the circular guard was prohibited. Simply put, the use of a circular guard turned one hazard into two hazards. He also told the jury that not only did European standards outlaw the use of the circular guard, but so did American safety standards including ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration).
The RAM manufacturer defended the case as Defendants normally defend any case. First, it blamed Mr. Dees. Next, it blamed the Alabama employer for not properly training Mr. Dees. For good reason, the jurors did not buy that defense.
Evan Allen and Kendall Dunson, lawyers from our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, represented Mr. Dees in his case. They did a very good job in preparation and trial of the case. The case was filed in the Circuit Court of Conecuh County, Alabama (case number CV-2015-900036).
Safety Design Standards Do Matter
Safety Design Standards are enacted or adopted to ensure that products (vehicles, machines, etc.) are safe for use by consumers. Lawyers representing injured clients often refer to these standards as “minimum safety standards” because they are commonly watered down as much as possible to ensure safety and to impose the minimum burden on product manufacturers. Manufacturers that are really safety conscious normally advertise that their products exceed these safety standards.
The purpose of design safety standard was crystalized during the recent trial in Conecuh County, mentioned above.
An in-running nip point is created when two rollers are in close proximity and are moving in opposite directions; thus, creating a force that pulls product and anything else, including clothing and human body parts, into the nip/hazard.
The necessity of guarding in-running nip points has been accepted and required for more than a century. Believe it or not, our lawyers still see cases where in-running nips are not guarded at all. In the Dees case, however, the manufacturer made a weak effort to guard the hazard, but that effort actually violated existing safety standards. The jury saw through the Defendant’s baseless arguments and found that the use of the circular guard violated European and American safety standards, and rendered a verdict in Mr. Dees’ favor.
This story can be found in the January 2019 edition of The Jere Beasley Report. Visit the Report online for more stories like this or to subscribe.