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Smith v. Verson Allsteel Press Co.





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. WILLIAM F. PATTERSON, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied September 5, 1979.

Plaintiff, John Earl Smith, was injured when the brake spring broke on a press brake that he was operating in the course of his employment. Plaintiff brought this action in strict liability in tort against defendants Verson Allsteel Press Company (Verson), the manufacturer of the press brake, and Major Spring and Manufacturing Company (Major), the manufacturer of the brake spring.

The cause was tried to a jury in the circuit court of Cook County. The jury returned a verdict of $800,000 in favor of plaintiff against both defendants. Subsequent to the entry of judgment on the verdict, Major paid plaintiff $250,000 in exchange for execution of a document entitled "Loan Agreement." Verson's post-trial motions, including its motion for partial satisfaction of plaintiff's judgment, were denied. Verson appeals.

The issues are: (1) whether Verson was entitled to a directed verdict on the grounds that (a) the testimony established that the accident could not have happened in a manner consistent with plaintiff's testimony, and (b) plaintiff failed to prove that the accident would have occurred in the absence of a modification made by plaintiff's employer after the press had left the manufacturer's control; (2) whether the court erred in giving certain jury instructions and refusing others; (3) whether the court committed prejudicial error in its rulings on evidence relating to prior brake spring failures and subsequent design changes; (4) whether the court erred in instructing the jury on a theory without support in the evidence; and (5) whether the loan agreement is void and the money advanced to plaintiff by Major is a partial satisfaction of plaintiff's judgment.

The machine involved in this case was manufactured by Verson and sold to plaintiff's employer, Grand Sheet Metal Company, in 1945. The machine is known as a press brake. Its function is to bend and shape metal by means of a ram which descends into the bed of the machine, pressing raw metal between dies which form the metal into the desired shape. The machine is electrically powered. Energy to move the ram is supplied by a flywheel, which rotates when the machine is turned on. The flywheel essentially stores energy, which it then imparts to the ram when the clutch is engaged. The clutch is linked and interlocked with a brake, so that whenever the clutch is engaged, the brake is released, allowing the press to operate continuously until the clutch is disengaged and the brake is applied.

As originally designed and sold by Verson, the press was operated by a foot treadle. When the foot treadle is depressed, it pulls a vertical clutch rod down. That action causes the clutch to engage and the brake to release, and the machine to function. When the operator removes his foot from the pedal, this removes pressure from a compression spring in the treadle linkage. A compression spring is a coiled spring that compresses in operation and expands back to its normal size when the machine is at rest. Thus, removal of pressure from the treadle causes the compressed spring to return the depressed pedal to its upright position as well as assist in disengaging the clutch by pulling back up on the vertical clutch rod. At the same time, four compression springs within the clutch itself initiate disengagement of the clutch.

Viewing the operation from the other end of the linkage, the movement of the vertical clutch rod when the operator steps on the foot treadle pulls on the brake spring, which controls the brake. The brake spring in the machine as manufactured by Verson was a tension spring. A tension spring is a more tightly wound coil that expands in operation and then returns back to its normal size when the machine's cycle is completed. Thus, the movement of the clutch rod when the foot treadle is depressed pulls on the brake spring and releases the brake. When the pedal is released, the additional tension on the brake spring is released and the brake spring contracts to its normal size, thereby applying the brake and also assisting in the disengagement of the clutch.

In 1965, plaintiff's employer modified the press's method of operation. For the mechanical foot treadle and the compression spring linkage leading to the clutch rod, plaintiff's employer substituted electrically operated palm buttons. Plaintiff elicited testimony that this modification was typical and in keeping with a trend in the industry toward safer operation of press brakes. The palm buttons are mounted on a pedestal at about the height and just to either side of the operator's waist. Pressure on the buttons activates a valve which causes air to pass into an air cylinder. This air pressure, then, instead of pressure from the operator's foot, pulls the clutch rod down, thereby engaging the clutch and releasing the brake. When the pressure is removed from the palm buttons, the air in the cylinder is immediately exhausted, the clutch rod is no longer being pulled down, and that force, along with the forces in the clutch and the brake spring, causes the clutch to disengage and the brake to be applied.

Thus, the essential interrelationship of linkages remained the same after the modification, whether the clutch rod was being pulled down by pressure on the foot treadle or pressure in the air cylinder. Where the two methods of operation differed was when the pressure was removed. When the operator removed his foot from the foot treadle, the action of the compression spring in the treadle linkage expanding to its normal size returned the foot pedal, but also assisted the clutch springs and brake spring in the disengagement of the clutch. When pressure was removed from the palm buttons, there was no corresponding action in the air cylinder affirmatively assisting the clutch springs and brake spring in the disengagement of the clutch, but rather only the absence of air pressure pulling the clutch rod down. The assistance provided by the treadle spring in the original design was replaced by an increase in the assistance provided by the brake spring. This was accomplished by means of a slight change in the brake spring's mounting and an extension of its stroke, or the amount that it would stretch in operation, from 1/4 or 1/2 inch to about 1.8 inches, in addition to its length of 6 inches as originally mounted. The machine was operated as so modified with no loss of speed or efficiency from about 1965 to the date of the occurrence on October 12, 1972.

On that day, plaintiff was 19 years old. He had just been hired and shown how to operate the press the day before. The procedure he followed was to load the machine from the left and push the palm buttons, causing the ram to come down and stamp out a finished piece. When the ram returned to the top of its cycle, plaintiff would release the palm buttons, causing the ram to stop. He would then unload the machine to the right and begin again.

The incident occurred sometime after 9 on the morning of plaintiff's second day, after he had formed about 80 pieces in the manner described. Plaintiff returned from a coffee break. He placed both hands on the palm buttons mounted on a pedestal between him and the press. The ram came down, stamped out a piece, and went back up. Plaintiff took his hands off the buttons as the ram reached the top and the ram stopped. Plaintiff was reaching in to remove the piece when he heard a psss sound, just as he did every time the ram began to descend. The ram came down and caught his hand between the dies. The ram continued to go up and down an indeterminate number of times until the power was cut off, plaintiff was pulled away, and the ram came to a stop.

Peter Riza, one of plaintiff's co-workers, was working 30-35 feet away from plaintiff when he heard a scream. He saw plaintiff standing in front of the machine with his hands caught between the dies as the ram kept going up and down. Riza testified that the machine appeared to be repeating under power. He switched the machine off and the machine slowed to a stop. After plaintiff was taken away, Riza examined the machine and found that the brake spring had broken. He replaced the brake spring and tested the machine. The machine operated normally and the ram stopped instantly whenever he took his hands off the palm buttons.

Richard Jones, another co-worker, was about 50 feet away when he heard plaintiff scream. Jones saw that plaintiff was standing straight up, in the customary place, with the palm buttons mounted on the pedestal between him and the press. Plaintiff's hands were caught between the dies and the ram was going up and down. Jones first thought that plaintiff was in contact with the buttons, and that they were shocking him. Accordingly, he ran toward the machine and switched off the electrical power to the machine. He then came around to the front of the machine and saw ...

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