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Who’s Liable When A Worker Misuses A Dangerous Machine At Work?

by The Beasley Firm  |  June 19, 2012  |  

Every year, roughly 5% of workers at industrial workplaces and construction sites are injured on the job so severely that they have to take time off. Thankfully, most of these work-related injures are caused by some form of overexertion or they’re a simple laceration or a closed, non-displaced bone fracture that will heal with due time off and proper medical care.

But every day, several hundred workers suffer something much worse, most frequently as the result of falling due to inadequate precautions set up by the employer, and sometimes as the result of a negligently designed product in the workplace. As we’ve discussed on our blog before, many times the injury is the result of defective equipment unexpectedly failing even when used properly.

But there’s another lurking issue in the law: what happens when the worker didn’t use the product as described in the user manual, but the product was also defectively designed? Can the manufacturer of the product be held legally responsible?

Last week, a New York State Appellate court considered that issue and decided it in favor of the injured worker. In Fisher v. Multiquip, a construction worker was using a concrete pump on a building site when,

the pump would not operate properly and plaintiff discovered that one of its cylinders appeared to be blocked by some hardened concrete left there the previous time that the pump was used. … [P]rior to attempting to clear the blockage, he turned the engine key to the off position, observed that the pressure gauge read zero and then placed his right hand into one of the cylinders. According to [his supervisor], as [the supervisor] walked around the pump, he noticed that the instrument panel was illuminated and turned the key to the off position, which caused the pump to cycle, shifting the swing arm, and crushing plaintiff’s hand, which ultimately required surgical amputation.

The plaintiff brought a negligence and strict liability lawsuit alleging the concrete pump was defectively designed – because it kept pressure even after it was turned off – and that it contained inadequate safety warnings. The New York appellate court held that the warnings were adequate as a matter of law, and that the plaintiff should have known, based on the equipment manual, not to put his hand and arm in the machine without turning it off, removing the key and unplugging the battery, and putting a “do not operate” sign on it. The employee handbook had the same instructions.

As lawyers for injured workers, we don’t agree with that decisions – we think the jury should have been allowed to hear evidence of other contradictions in the system, evidence about whether or not warnings should have been put on the machine, and evidence about the employer’s training procedures – but the really interesting part about the New York court decision is what they did next. Even though the court agreed the worker had been misusing the machine by putting his hand in it to remove the stuck concrete, the court then considered the plaintiff’s experts’ testimony that the pump was defective by maintaining hydraulic pressure (and that alternative designs who have fixed that problem without making the product much more expensive or less usable), and ruled:

Even if, as defendant asserts, plaintiff’s failure to heed the warnings and instructions caused the accident and/or the accident resulted from Haas’ conduct, so long as defendant’s negligence and unsafe design can be shown to be a substantial cause of the events which produced the injury, the existence of another proximate cause of the accident in addition to defendant’s defective design does not excuse defendant from liability.

In other words, even if the worker was using the machine improperly, the worker could still sue the manufacturer of the product for their injuries if they could show the machine was defectively designed as well.

The rule is the same in Pennsylvania, with an important exception. If an injured worker claims the equipment malfunctioned – as compared to being defectively designed – then they can’t recover compensation if they were using the product in violation of the product directions and/or warnings. Barnish v. KWI Bldg. Co., 602 Pa. 402, 413-414, 980 A.2d 535, 542 (2009). Similarly, if a worker claims a malfunction, they have to explain how the device was defective when it left the manufacturer’s control. In Barnish, the spark detection system at a particleboard plant failed to work, contributing to an explosion and fire at the factory. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed the wrongful death case, however, ruling that the injured workers’ survivors could prove the detector didn’t work, but couldn’t prove it also was defective when it left the factory.

All in all, given the frequency with which courts lately have been chipping away at workers’ rights, we’re glad to see one court moving in the right direction, and to hold manufacturers accountable for unsafe features in their design. There’s nothing wrong with holding manufacturers accountable for preventable injuries their products caused.

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