• November 22, 2017

A Disemboweled Meat Grinder

Update (November 22, 2107): The case, described below, involved a worker, Nereus Montemayor, who climbed into an extruder, a giant meat grinder (more or less), which had been jammed. Another worker, not knowing Mr. Montemayor was inside the meat grinder, fired up the machine. Mr. Montemayor was badly injured.

The case has been up to the Minnesota Supreme Court and back down to the trial court once already. On its first visit to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court reversed summary judgment in the machine manufacturer’s favor.

On remand, the trial court judge, Chief Judge Jodi L. Williamson in Dodge County, again ruled in favor of the machine manufacturer on a motion for summary judgment. This time, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s second grant of summary judgment.

Our concern about the defendants’ argument the first time around, referred to in the original subject line of this post (“DO NOT ENTER” and “WHEN YOU ENTER, BE CAREFUL”), was the inconsistent warning on the machine. The Court of Appeals did not find any merit in that critique since Mr. Montemayor apparently did not read the warning(s) so he could not complain about their inconsistency. But, in Round #2, the Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer. Plaintiff’s design expert will testify that a start-up alarm or start-up delay would have been feasible and would have prevented the accident. This testimony gets the plaintiff past defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

We’ll see if the manufacturer seeks Minnesota Supreme Court review again and, if so, whether the Minnesota Supreme Court takes the case. (Our bets: no and no.)

The Court of Appeals’ decision makes a lot of sense. Stop a second and get your head around the number of injuries that have been prevented by vehicle backup alarms. (Interestingly, the federal workplace safety regulator, OSHA, does not require vehicles to include backup alarms but they do have regulations prohibiting removal of them if installed by the manufacturer.) How expensive could a start-up warning be on a human-sized meat-grinder? The cost of such devices seems minimal when weighed against the cost of injuries they prevent.

Update (July 12, 2017): The linked decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court reverses the lower courts’ rulings in favor of the product liability defendant.

This “close case” is a major win for Minnesota product liability plaintiffs and, as stated in our previous post, below, one that we had been rooting for.

Justice Gildea’s dissent powerfully argues that the manufacturer could not have foreseen the employer’s and multiple employees’ multiple mis-steps (and OSHA violations). “The majority essentially imposes a duty on manufacturers to design an ‘accident-proof or fool-proof’ product,” Justice Gildea concludes, a duty that our law does not impose. (Maybe it should?)

An extruder is designed to separate liquid from solid mass. Materials are loaded into an area called the hopper. A hydraulic ram then compresses the materials, forcing them into a perforated discharge chute. At the bottom of the discharge chute, a hydraulically powered door (the plenum) lowers to hold the materials under pressure to condense the remaining materials….[These are used] for the purpose of extracting liquid from food waste to be used in hog feed.

Mr. Nereus Montemayor lost both of his legs above the knee when he entered into a jammed Bright Technologies high-density extruder to unjam the machine and a co-worker turned on the extruder with Mr. Montemayor inside it.

Was this life-changing accident sufficiently “foreseeable” to the manufacturer that a products liability lawsuit against it should survive its motion for summary judgment?

The law struggles with the notion of foreseeability because it depends on facts and circumstances and the hypothetical specificity with which an event might or might not have been anticipated. The manufacturer obviously could not have foreseen every detail of Mr. Montemayor’s accident. On the other hand, (1) Was it foreseeable that the extruder would jam? (yes); (2) Was it foreseeable that a human would climb into the machine to try to unjam it? (perhaps a jury might think so).

Even the machine’s posted warnings (“Do Not Enter” and “Follow Lockout/Tagout Procedures Before Entering”), though inconsistent, were tacit admissions that the manufacturer did foresee people climbing into the machine. Mr. Montemayor, incidentally, said that he did not see the warning signs.

Should manufacturers of machines capable of maiming or killing their human operators be required to foresee and, if economically feasible, incorporate design features to guard against such terrible accidents?  The district court held that the manufacturer owed no duty to Mr. Montemayor because “the accident was not reasonably foreseeable.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed.

Plaintiff’s counsel sought review by the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing that the lower court’s “constellation of circumstances” standard of foreseeability was a new and imaginary standard of foreseeability that could never be met. Counsel for the machine manufacturer countered that the district court did not apply any “new standard.” According to counsel for Bright Technologies, the lower courts simply applied “the well-settled standard that there is no duty when the connection between the alleged negligent act and the accident is too remote to impose liability….

The Minnesota Supreme Court granted the Plaintiff’s petition for review. I predict that it will and believe that it should reverse. Manufacturers of obviously extremely dangerous machines are very much aware of so-called “foreseeable misuse” of their products. I do not know whether there was a feasible alternative design that would have avoided this accident; if there was and if Bright Technologies could have feasibly implemented such a design but failed to, then its liability seems consistent with basic U.S. 20th and 21st century product liability law.

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