John A. DeGasperis received a favorable verdict for a Basch & Keegan client. This case is one of the most complicated product liability lawsuits John has encountered. The jury found the defendant fully liable. A future trial will be held to determine compensatory damages, and 9% interest is accruing during the waiting period of this trial. This is a huge victory for our client and the overall safety of employees.
The Product That Caused Harm
Our client was injured at work. He worked at a large, paper product manufacturing facility for nearly 30 years prior to the incident. The facility processed its considerable paper waste with industrial-sized balers, and one of these machines is what injured our client.
To understand the lawsuit, we first need to explain the product that caused the injury. The baler’s compression cycle had only two modes: (1) “Auto Mode” and (2) “Door Open Mode”. The entire compression cycle occurred in “Auto Mode.” The baler functioned the same manner in each mode, except the baler chamber door was open in Door Open Mode.
As the feed chamber filled with paper from overhead ducting, a compression cycle occurred where a hydraulic ram moved forward and backward to compress the paper into the bale chamber. This compression cycle happened multiple times before the baler produced a finished bale of paper waste. Sensors on the bale chamber determined when the feed chamber was full, and alarms on the control panel activated when the bale chamber reached 75% and 100% capacity. The ram stopped in the extended position once a bale had been formed. The operator would proceed to manually place bailing wires around the finished bale; bailing wires were inserted into the bale chamber through slots in the face of the chamber door. Once the finished bale was tied off, the chamber door had to be opened manually to eject the bale. The door could not open until switched from “Auto Mode” to “Door Open Mode”.
A door sensor was positioned on the bale chamber frame to sense if the door is closed. The ram would not move forward while the door was closed in the “Door Open Mode”. This was a safety feature intended to avoid dangerous and unwanted ram pressure against the finished bale while the door restraints are being released.
The baler is considered “closed” because of a hinged door located at the end of the baler. The door was held closed by latch plates and pull rods that are hydraulically operated. The pull rods could be extended only after the baler was switched to “Door Open Mode.” The operator had to hold the “Door Open” switch to extend the pull rods. The door was freed when the pull rods extended. The operator had to manually open the chamber door.
Once the door was open, the machine operator had to switch the machine back to “Auto Mode” to bring the ram forward. Meanwhile, the finished bale waited in the chamber while a new bale formed behind it. Over time, the new bale pushed the finished bale out of the chamber. The ejected bale came to rest on a metal skid where it was accessible to a forklift.
Our client was seriously injured when the bale chamber door, weight 600 pounds, opened suddenly during the bale ejection process. Our client was pushing a pallet of recycled materials down an open corridor when he observed a fellow employee, Mr. Z, struggle to pass baling wire around the back of a finished bale that was still inside the chamber. Our client offered to help Mr. Z.
Since Mr. Z could not pass the wires, he went to the control panel and switched the controls from “Auto Mode” to “Door Open Mode.” The ram retracted automatically. Mr. Z extended the pull rods several inches but did not extend the rods far enough to disengage them from the latch plates. Mr. Z opened the door several inches the make space for the bailing wires.
Mr. Z’s efforts failed so he returned to the control panel to re-engage “Auto Mode” as he wanted to bring the hydraulic ram forward again. The ram moved forward and began to compress the finished bale. The pressure that the ram placed on the finished bale caused the door to open suddenly. The door opened under tremendous pressure and struck our client as he walked by the end of the bale chamber. The force nearly amputated our clients left foot.
This case reveals what the manufacturer of the baler had known; that the door had to be fully opened during the bale ejection process otherwise it was exposed to pressure from the hydraulic ram and became unreasonably dangerous.
During litigation, John proved that the manufacturer knew that bale chamber doors posed serious risk of injury or death. A warning should have been installed on both the bale chamber and control panel to advise operators to fully open the door prior to bale ejection. The warning should have read something to the effect of “To avoid serious injury or death, the bale chamber door must be opened more than 90 degrees during bale ejection.” The manufacturing’s failure to warn was not the only act of negligence. The operating instructions did not emphasize the importance of door positioning within the context of the bale ejection process. By failing to explain or emphasize the risks associated with improper door positioning, the manufacturer exposed people to harm.
Additionally, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requires installation of an “interlock” on “all closed-chamber horizontal balers to ensure return of the bailing ram face into the loading hopper area before the manually operated bale chamber door opening mechanism is activated.” This specific standard sought to ensure no forward pressure from the hydraulic ram against finished bales while the chamber door was closed during the “Door Open Mode.” Here, the manufacturers baler allowed the hydraulic ram to move forward while the chamber door was only partially restrained. This forward movement violated the spirit of the ANSI safety standard that sought to avoid forward ram pressure against finished bales until the door is fully opened.
John argued that the manufacturer of the baler could have remedied the defective condition with a second door sensor to sense when the chamber door was in proper position (fully open) before the bale ejection process could be initiated. The baler in this case was already equipped with a door sensor that sensed when the door was closed, a second sensor would detect when the door was fully opened.
After weeks of preparation, John and paralegal Katherine Farley went to trial to determine liability. During trial John examined and cross-examined experts and witnesses, and prepared multiple exhibits for the argument. The defense argued that our client was at fault and should have not been standing in front of the door.
The trial lasted 5 days. The jury came back with a verdict that found the manufacturer completely at fault. They found that the baler was defective and that the company knew of the dangers and failed to warn. They also found the plaintiff negligent, but that his negligence was not a substantial factor in the accident. Our client had been vindicated.
This is a huge win for Basch & Keegan. Proving this product defective, and holding the manufacturer accountable, will keep workers safe in the future.