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Mason v. Caterpillar Tractor Co.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Lester D. Foreman, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Wilma Mason, administrator of the estate of decedent, Robert L. Mason, brought an action against defendants Caterpillar Tractor Company (Caterpillar) and Patten Industries, Inc. (Patten), seeking to recover damages for fatal injuries decedent sustained while making repairs on a track shoe from a Caterpillar tractor. Plaintiff's complaint was predicated on theories of strict products liability and negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment for defendants on both theories. Plaintiff's motion for reconsideration was denied, and this appeal followed. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

On August 25, 1975, plaintiff's decedent was employed at Wilkinson Welding Company, where his duties included performing repairs on component parts of tractors. On the above date, in furtherance of his duties, decedent was using a metal sledgehammer to perform repairs on a heavy steel track shoe from a Caterpillar tractor. A small bullet-like piece of metal from the track shoe came loose and struck decedent in the chest, fatally injuring him. In August 1977, plaintiff filed a complaint based on negligence and strict products liability theories against Caterpillar, the alleged manufacturer of the track shoe; Patten, the alleged distributor of the track shoe; and Gust Newberg, the owner of the Caterpillar tractor. Newberg was later dismissed pursuant to settlement and is not a party to this appeal.

Plaintiff's complaint alleged that Caterpillar and Patten sold a Caterpillar tractor, including the steel tracks, to Gust Newberg. The complaint alleged in part that the tractor track was defective as a result of various negligent acts and/or omissions by defendants, and that the defective condition proximately resulted in the fatal injuries sustained by decedent. Only the following three allegations of misconduct are relevant to this appeal: (1) that defendants failed to use reasonable methods of heat treatment on the track shoe; (2) that defendants failed to use a sufficient amount of carbon in the steel used to make the track shoe; and (3) that defendants failed to warn decedent of the "impending danger."

Caterpillar and Patten denied the above allegations and other material allegations of the complaint. In April 1982, Caterpillar filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence that it had manufactured the track shoe in question, there was no evidence of any defect in the product or its design, and that it had no duty to warn.

The evidence produced during the summary judgment proceedings established that the track shoe was part of a "track assembly," a term used to describe the portions of the tractor's undercarriage. In addition to the track shoes, the track assembly includes pins and bushings which drive the shoes, and the rails upon which the tractor rollers travel. A portion of the track shoe is raised and is known as a "grouser" or "grouser bar." It is this portion of the tractor which cuts into the ground to provide traction.

Although a track and its shoes are designed to withstand the severe wear of tractor use, the track and track shoes do eventually wear and require replacement or rebuilding. As a general rule, track links can usually be rebuilt at least once and connecting pins and bushings "turned," before the entire track and its track shoes need to be replaced. When a track has been taken off a tractor and stretched out, the links look like an enormous bicycle chain with track shoes bolted onto the outside surface of the chain of links. To disassemble the track for repairs, the track shoes first must be unbolted and removed, and then the links separated from each other by removing the round pins that hold them together. After the links are rebuilt and the pins and bushing turned, the track is reassembled.

The decedent had been employed at Wilkinson Welding for more than 15 years prior to his death. William Wilkinson, Jr., president of the company, testified that decedent had repaired and rebuilt tractor track assemblies hundreds of times and was as knowledgeable as anyone in the plant about the method. At the time of the accident, decedent was rebuilding a track assembly using a pin and bushing press. The press was used to push the track portions back together, pushing the links back on pins and bushings, after which decedent would use a metal sledgehammer to straighten the shoe with a tap. Wilkinson testified that in tapping the track shoe, workers attempt to strike the flat portion of the shoe and avoid the raised grouser bar. It was not unusual, however, for workers to occasionally miss the flat portion and strike the grouser bar. In this case, decedent struck the grouser bar at a diagonal angle, causing a metal chip to leave the surface of the grouser and pierce his chest. At the time, decedent was wearing the safety glasses and shoes required by his employer.

Defendants presented expert testimony, uncontroverted by plaintiff, to the effect that decedent did not "tap" the shoe, but rather struck the track shoe with a full swing, exerting a great amount of force. An accident report by decedent's employer revealed that decedent was using a 20-pound sledgehammer at the time of his accident. Wilkinson testified that workers at his plant were supposed to use a 12- to 14-pound sledgehammer to tap the track shoe. Wilkinson additionally testified that silvers had come off of track shoes in the past when workers hammered on the shoes. However, he stated that this particular incident was a "freak accident, something that just never happened before" or "since." Wilkinson did nothing different after the accident to change his repair procedure.

It was undisputed that Caterpillar had no prior knowledge of any similar accidents or complaints regarding the metallurgical composition of its track shoes. There was no evidence that Patten had any knowledge of similar accidents or complaints concerning the metallurgical composition of Caterpillar track shoes.

Plaintiff, during the proceedings below, relied solely on Dr. Geoffrey Higgins, a professor of metallurgical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Higgins opined that the track shoe in question did not contain a sufficient depth of hardness and did not have enough carbon content. Higgins stated, however, that even if hardness and carbon content of the track shoe were increased, he could not say with certainty that the accident would not have occurred. He admitted that if sufficient force is applied, the ultimate strength of any metal can be exceeded. In his deposition, Higgins testified he had no opinion as to what effect his proposed design changes would have on the desirability or usefulness of the track shoe.

Caterpillar presented the expert testimony of Professor Thomas Dolan, former head of the department of theoretical and applied mechanics at the University of Illinois-Urbana. Dolan testified as to conditions faced by track shoes in the field, stating that durability and ability to withstand loading forces and bending were important. For these reasons, hardness of the steel used in the shoes had to be limited. Increasing the depth of hardening and carbon content would lessen the shoe's toughness and resistance to wear in the field. Dolan further stated that Higgins' proposed design changes would not have prevented the decedent's accident.

Caterpillar additionally relied on the testimony of Gifford Rodine, a Caterpillar design engineer. Rodine testified that a higher level of carbon and greater depth of hardenability would decrease the chance of chipping, but increase the chance of brittle fracture and decrease durability.

On January 12, 1983, the trial court denied the motions of Caterpillar and Patten for summary judgment. Approximately one year later, defendants moved for reconsideration, asserting that the design of the track shoe was not unreasonably dangerous and that they had no duty to warn. *fn1 After hearing oral arguments, the court granted defendants' motion for reconsideration and ultimately entered summary judgment in defendants' favor as to the ...

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