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Flores v. U.s. Industries

OPINION FILED FEBRUARY 1, 1980.

ANGEL FLORES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

U.S. INDUSTRIES, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. JAMES C. MURRAY, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE SULLIVAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The sole issue presented by plaintiff in this appeal is whether the trial court erred in directing a verdict in favor of defendant in this product liability action.

Plaintiff was injured in May 1971, at his place of employment (Electro Metal Company) while working on a punch press manufactured by defendant. The press, as sold to Electro Metal, contained a switch which, in one position, allowed the operator to activate the ram by simultaneously depressing two palm buttons and, in the other, by depressing a foot pedal. At the side of the machine, a selector switch provided four modes of operation, three of which are relevant here — continuous, run, and off. In the "continuous" position, the ram would descend repeatedly as long as either the foot pedal or two palm buttons were depressed. The "run" mode provided for single stroke operations whereby the ram would descend once each time the buttons or pedal were depressed. In the "off" position, all controls, including the palm buttons and foot pedal, were deactivated. This selector switch was key operated; however, it was possible to set the switch in a given position and remove the key without locking it, thus allowing any individual to turn the switch by hand. A red stop button was located between the two palm buttons. When depressed, it removed the power and the press could not be reactivated unless the operator pulled the stop button out again.

According to plaintiff, just before his injury occurred he had been operating the press in the continuous mode by means of the foot pedal. One of the stamped parts "came out bad," so he stopped using the foot pedal and reached into the area between the dies with his right hand to align the material. At this point he was standing directly in front of the stop button, three feet away from the foot pedal, and was leaning on the machine with his left hand. Although he did not touch any controls, the ram descended on his right hand, causing severe injury.

Plaintiff then brought the instant product liability action against defendant and, in his amended complaint, alleged that the press was defective and unreasonably dangerous from the time of manufacture up to the time of the accident in one or more of the following respects: (1) that it failed to contain a safety control switch readily accessible to the operator to deactivate the ram control circuitry; (2) that it was not equipped with a safety block or prop readily accessible to the operator; and (3) that it was not equipped with an interlocked barrier guard or movable barrier gate to be used during foot control operations. He also alleged that such unreasonably dangerous condition proximately caused his injury.

At trial, plaintiff testified that the accident occurred as described above; that there was no guard surrounding the die area of the machine; that he never saw a guard on any press during the time he worked at Electro Metal; that "restraints" were attached to the wall behind him; that these restraints, however, when attached to the operator's wrists, were of such limited length that they prevented the operator from placing his hands in the die area at any time and therefore could not be used in the instant situation, where it was necessary for him to reach into the die area from time to time to adjust the materials; and that there were no "pullback" devices attached to the wall (belts which attach to the operator's wrists but, while allowing him to reach in between the dies, would pull the operator's wrists away from the press when the ram descends).

Dr. Ralph Armington, a professor of electrical engineering called as an expert witness by plaintiff, testified that he studied the photographs and schematic diagram of the press in question; that, in his opinion, the cycling of the press was caused by two bare wires in the left palm button housing which came into contact with each other when plaintiff leaned against the assembly; that as a safety feature, the press should have contained "a second switch * * * hand operated and within easy reach of the operator" which would have disconnected the power supply from the control circuitry; that such a switch would have prevented plaintiff's injury if he used it; and that, without this proposed switch, the machine was in his opinion unreasonably dangerous. On cross-examination, he admitted that he never actually examined the press which caused the injury; that there was no evidence that any of the wires in the left palm button housing were bare; that he assumed pressure from plaintiff's body caused the bare wires to come into contact; that the selector switch, when in the "off" position, deactivates the control circuitry — thus accomplishing the same result as his proposed "second switch"; that the proposed switch would differ from the existing selector switch in that it would be more accessible to the operator and could be used without a key; and that pullbacks, if properly installed, would have prevented plaintiff's injury.

George Harper, a safety consultant called by plaintiff, testified that he examined the photographs and drawings pertaining to the press in question; that at the time of the accident there were safety standards promulgated by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) regarding punch presses; that a pertinent standard stated that "[e]ach press shall be equipped and operated with a point of operation guard or a point of operation safety device"; that many options are available in terms of point of operation guards and protection devices, depending to some extent on the type of operation the machine is being used for; that among these are fixed barrier guards (which surround the point of operation but cannot be readily removed or opened, and thus prevent the operator from placing his hands in the die area), interlocking barrier guards (which also surround the point of operation but can be opened and, if opened, electrically deactivate the controls), and die blocks (metal props which are placed between the dies and prevent them from closing while the operator is setting or replacing the dies). He gave an opinion that the press in question was unreasonably dangerous at the time of manufacture and did not meet ANSI standards because "there was no adequate guarding, no adequate barrier device that would prevent the man's hands from entering, and there was no [prop] available to give him the protection he should have to enter the danger zone." On cross-examination, he stated that the palm buttons by which the press could be activated qualified as point of operation guards under ANSI standards, but that the problem he saw in the machine was a lack of adequate guarding when the press was operated by foot pedal in the continuous mode; that since defendant incorporated the palm buttons, the strict terms of the ANSI standards may not have been violated, but they were violated "in spirit"; and that the appropriate size of the die blocks to be used depended upon the size of the dies installed by the user — which the manufacturer of the press would not know.

Stephen Finley, plaintiff's foreman, was called as a witness by defendant and testified that barrier guards had been supplied by Electro Metal and were to be attached on continuous stroke operations; that no restraints were installed but pullback devices had been installed shortly after the press was purchased and were available at the time of the accident; that die blocks were furnished by Electro Metal and generally were used only by the die setters — not the press operators; that the selector switch at the side of the press would turn off the machine; and that the stop button located between the two palm buttons deactivated the controls when depressed. On cross-examination, he answered that the barrier guards furnished were not of the interlocking type.

Ralph Barnett, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering called by defendant, testified as an expert witness that he examined the press in question in May 1976; that he observed pullbacks and fixed barrier guards; that the purpose of a die block is to hold the upper die in place while it is being removed or installed and that it could not withstand a power stroke of the ram; that the stop button performs exactly the same function as the switch proposed by Professor Armington; that in his opinion the press was not only safe as sold but was also safe at the time of the accident, because of the palm buttons and the pullbacks.

At the close of the evidence, defendant moved for a directed verdict, and the trial judge reserved ruling on the motion. The case was submitted to the jury and, when it was unable to reach a verdict, a mistrial was declared and the court then granted defendant's motion for directed verdict. This appeal followed.

OPINION

Plaintiff's sole contention here is that the trial court improperly granted defendant's motion for a directed verdict. In evaluating this contention, we are mindful that directed verdicts should be entered "only in those cases in which all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand." Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co. (1967), 37 Ill.2d 494, 510, 229 N.E.2d 504, 513-14.

• 1 Looking to his amended complaint, it is noted that plaintiff alleges three specific defects which rendered the press unreasonably dangerous. First, that the press "[f]ailed to contain a safety control switch readily accessible to the operator to deactivate the ram control circuit." He points out that such a switch was proposed by plaintiff's expert (Armington), who gave an opinion, in answer to a hypothetical question, that the ram descended because of a short circuit resulting from the pressure of plaintiff's body against the machine — which caused contact between two electrical wires which must have been bare. He stated that his proposed switch, if it had been used by plaintiff, would have prevented the injury. We find nothing in the record to support this opinion. It is based on the assumption that there was a short circuit caused by contact between some bare wires. We note no basis for this assumption, as there is no evidence of any such bare wires nor did the hypothetical question given Armington contain any statement that there were bare wires. Moreover, it is uncontradicted that the press had two switches which performed the same function as the switch proposed by Armington. Finley and defendant's expert (Barnett) testified to the existence of a red stop button located between the palm buttons — which would deactivate the machine when depressed — and Barnett specifically testified that this red stop button did exactly what Armington's proposed switch would do. Further, Finley and Barnett also testified to the existence of a selector switch on the press which would also cut off power when turned to the "off" position. Armington, while admitting on cross-examination that this selector switch would accomplish the same purpose as the switch he proposed, suggested that the ...


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