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Rios v. Niagara Machine & Tool Works





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. P.A. Sorrentino, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied November 26, 1974.

This is a personal injury action based on strict tort liability. The plaintiff, Abdon Rios, was injured while operating a punch press manufactured by the defendant, Niagara Machine & Tool Works, and sold to plaintiff's employer, Hammond Organ Company. In his complaint plaintiff alleges that the machine was unreasonably dangerous because it was not equipped with appropriate safety devices. After a jury trial in the circuit court of Cook County the plaintiff was awarded $76,000 in damages. The appellate court reversed the judgment. (12 Ill. App.3d 739.) We granted leave to appeal.

The machine involved, a punch press with a 45-ton capacity, was manufactured by Niagara in 1956 and sold to Hammond in the same year. The press was used by Hammond in manufacturing organ parts. During operation of the press, the ram, the movable part, descends upon the bottom of the press, the anvil, exerting up to 45 tons of pressure. The ram descends only when the operator pushes a foot lever. Raw material is inserted between the ram and the anvil and is formed into a finished part by the pressure exerted by the ram. The shape of the part so produced is determined by the die set attached to the press by the user. When Niagara sold the press to Hammond no dies were attached. The dies in use at the time of plaintiff's injury were produced and attached by Hammond.

This press may be used in either a primary or a secondary operation. During primary operation raw material is fed into the machine by the operator. The machine operates automatically, the operator's only function being to make certain that there is an adequate supply of raw material. It is not necessary for the operator to place his hands near the working parts of the machine.

In the secondary operation parts previously prepared are finished. The operator's job is to place a part in the correct position in the lower die so that it will be properly fabricated when the ram descends. After setting the part the operator pushes a foot lever to activate the ram. The ram descends and lifts automatically, after which the finished part is removed by the operator. During secondary operation parts may be placed in the machine from the front, the rear, or the sides and the machine may be in an upright position or inclined toward the rear.

As sold by Niagara in 1956, the punch press was not equipped with any safety devices. Plaintiff's evidence showed that various safety devices were commonly used in the manufacturing industry to prevent injury to punch-press operators. Some of these devices are rather simple while others are extremely sophisticated. One device consists simply of two buttons which must be pushed by the operator to activate the ram. Some presses are equipped with movable guards which descend in front of the ram. Also available are devices which are attached to the operator himself and forcibly remove his hands from the area of the ram. All of these devices are designed to assure that the operator's hands are removed from beneath the ram at the time of impact. None of these devices was incorporated into the press by Niagara. However, the machine did have a nonrepeat feature which prevented the ram from descending more than once each time the operator pressed the foot lever.

Although no safety device was attached to the machine by Niagara, safety devices were attached by Hammond. Hammond's fabricating superintendent, John Lang, testified that about 3000 primary and secondary operations are performed in Hammond's punch-press department. He stated that during primary operations no safety devices were necessary. However, he was of the opinion that secondary operations would be very dangerous unless safety devices were used. When used for secondary operations, Hammond equipped its punch presses with safety devices. Lang testified that the type of safety device to be used was determined by the nature of the die being used and the type of operation being performed. It was his job to determine what type of device was appropriate for each operation. At the time of the accident the press was equipped with a Posson safety device. This device was attached to the plaintiff and was designed to pull his hands away from the machine as the ram descended.

The plaintiff testified that at the time of the accident he was performing a secondary operation and had been working for about two hours. He was sitting on a chair facing the machine. The operation being performed required him to place a piece in the machine with his right hand, activate the press by stepping on the foot pedal, and remove the finished part with his left hand. He stated that he was attempting to remove a piece with his left hand when the ram unexpectedly descended a second time, severely injuring his hand. He stated that he had only pressed the foot pedal once. The parties stipulated that at the time of the accident the Posson safety device attached to the plaintiff had broken and was inoperable. Lang testified that he examined the press after the accident and found that the nonrepeat cycle was working properly.

Plaintiff argues that the evidence presented at trial that the manufacturer had failed to equip the machine with a safety device was sufficient to establish a right to recovery on a strict-tort-liability theory, and contends that the appellate court erred in reversing the jury verdict. The defendant contends that the plaintiff failed to prove any of the elements of a strict-liability claim. It argues that the sole cause of plaintiff's accident was the failure of the safety device installed by Hammond.

In Suvada v. White Motor Co., 32 Ill.2d 612, this court described the essential elements of strict tort liability. The plaintiff must prove that his injury "resulted from a condition of the product, that the condition was an unreasonably dangerous one and that the condition existed at the time it left the manufacturer's control." 32 Ill.2d at 623.

We think it is clear from the evidence that when used for secondary operations the punch press involved in this case was dangerous. Hammond's fabricating superintendent and an engineer called as an expert witness both testified that the press could not safely be used for secondary operations without the installation of a safety device. However, to establish liability in strict tort it is not sufficient that the plaintiff prove the product was dangerous; he must prove that it was unreasonably dangerous, or in other words not reasonably safe.

The appellate court found that the press was not unreasonably dangerous because it could be used for its primary operations safely even without any safety device. The court also noted that because the machine could be used for so many different operations and the nature of the operation would determine what type of safety device was appropriate, it would have been impossible for Niagara to equip the machine with a safety device which could be used during all of its operations. For these reasons the court found that there was no duty upon the manufacturer to install a safety device. The court did not reach the question of whether the allegedly dangerous condition of the punch press was the cause of plaintiff's injury. We shall consider this aspect of the case first.

Prior to the trial of this action the parties stipulated that at the time of the accident, the Posson safety device attached to plaintiff's arms broke and did not pull his hands from underneath the descending ram. The sole proximate cause of this accident was, the defendant argues, the mechanical failure of this device which was attached by Hammond. Plaintiff argues that the malfunction of this device is not, as a matter of law, an intervening independent cause which will relieve defendant from liability for marketing an unreasonably dangerous machine because (1) the manufacturer is under a non-delegable duty to make its products safe for their intended uses and cannot expect others, such as plaintiff's ...

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