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Wojnarowski v. Furnas Electric Co.

Illinois Appellate Court

June 30, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice South

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Honorable Susan F. Zwick, Judge Presiding.

Plaintiff, Richard Wojnarowski, filed a multi-count complaint against defendants Flolo Corporation (Flolo) and Furnas Electric Company (Furnas), sounding in strict liability and negligence. The claims arose out of injuries sustained by plaintiff, who was employed as a "set-up man" at Best Metal Extrusions, Inc. (Best Metal), while he was adjusting the ram of a punch press. The complaint alleges that a Furnas time delay switch, which was incorporated into an ejector pin system that was added to the punch press at the Best Metal plant, failed and led to an explosion of the punch press die. Plaintiff alleged that the time delay switch was designed and manufactured by Furnas and sold by Flolo to Best Metal in 1986. Summary judgment was granted in favor of both defendants. Plaintiff appeals only from the ruling in favor of Furnas.

Best Metals was incorporated in 1980 and on August 3, 1993, had 10 presses, all of which were purchased used. The company's owner, Guy Brumley, rebuilt those presses, including any repairs or modifications necessary to make the presses operational. Inasmuch as the presses averaged over 50 years of age, it was necessary to modernize them and add necessary safety features.

The press plaintiff was operating at the time of the accident was originally manufactured in 1941. Best Metals had the motor rebuilt, installed an electronics system and added a hydraulic ejector pin system to the press. The purpose of the ejector pin system was to remove a completed part from the die bed or the point of operation after it had been formed. The press could be operated through double-palm buttons. If the operator removed his hands from these controls, the ram of the press would automatically stop.

There was also an "inch control," which was to be used when setting up the press and which allowed the ram of the press to move short distances up or down. The inch control was about two feet to the right of the point of operation or die bed. Its use may have prevented an injury to an operator resulting from a punch shattering against a die that was not properly aligned. Although the press contained a switch that indicated when there was a failure in the electrical circuitry, Brumley did not design or install a similar switch for the ejector pin system. There were no other safety features on the press at the time of plaintiff's accident.

The ejector pin system that was added to the press contains a hydraulic cylinder that moves a metal rod or pin up and down. The movement of the pin causes a formed metal part to move out of the die bed. The ejector pin system also includes a Furnas time delay switch, which works in conjunction with the ram of the press that forms the part being manufactured.

Brumley explained that when the punch descends and moves all the way down through the stroke, it triggers an electric switch, which in turn allows the punch to rise up and activate the Furnas time delay switch. The time delay switch interrupts the electrical circuit of the press and permits the ejector pin a programmed amount of time to eject the part from the die. Once that preset time has elapsed, the switch allows the electrical contacts to close, causing the ejector pin to drop, and the ram of the press is again allowed to descend and form another part from a blank now positioned in the die bed.

At the time of the accident, the time delay switch was set for four seconds, which gave the ejector pin enough time to travel eight inches and return to its home position. Whenever a new die was put in place, the set-up man changed the time delay by trial and error. This change was usually made the day before a new job was run, as jobs typically lasted only one or two days.

Guy Brumley designed and installed the ejector pin system himself. Furnas was not involved in any way in the design of the ejector pin system. Similarly, Furnas exercised no control over the manner in which the ejector pin system was designed, including the use of safety equipment.

Best Metals purchased the time delay switch in question from Flolo Corporation in February 1986. By April or May of 1986, the time delay switch was installed on the press and was being used as part of the ejector system. The time delay switch, which is a defined component part that can be used in numerous applications, was recommended by Flolo, after Brumley described its intended use. Brumley stated that he read and understood all of the instructions that accompanied the time delay switch. The time delay switch in question had an expected life of 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 operations.

Furnas, the manufacturer of the time relay switch, functionally tested every time delay switch prior to shipping to ensure that the coils in the switch would properly actuate and that the time delay function was operational. This functional testing was in effect in 1985, when the instant time delay switch was manufactured. Furnas has never been sued for a personal injury allegedly caused from the use of this time delay switch. Brumley himself said that the time delay switch is not unreasonably dangerous. No complaints have been made to Furnas because of failures similar to the one alleged by plaintiff.

The contacts in the coil of the time delay switch could be wired so that they are in either a normally-open or normally-closed position. Brumley knew this. When the contacts in the coil are wired in a normally-closed position, electrical current would flow through the switch even if the switch failed. Conversely, if the contacts in the coil are wired in a normally-open position, electrical current will not flow through the switch if the time delay switch failed. Brumley admitted that since the time delay function could be wired in a normally-open position, he could have wired the ejector system so that the accident could have been prevented.

Plaintiff, who started with Best Metal in 1983, was a shop foreman. One of his responsibilities was to set up the presses. This entailed assembling the specific tooling in the press, bolting the tools down, adjusting them and running a few tests to ensure that the parts were being made pursuant to the specification. After that process was completed, the operator would run the press.

On the day of the accident, plaintiff was inspecting the presses and taking samples to make sure the parts were being made pursuant to the specifications. The accident occurred after plaintiff noticed that the parts being formed on one press were approaching the upper limit of the specifications. Plaintiff made an adjustment and started the press. That is when the accident occurred.

Within an hour after the accident, after plaintiff had been taken to the hospital, Brumley inspected the press. He noticed that the top half of the punch, which he described as the size of a soda can, was broken. The bottom half of the punch was still in the die. The ram was in the up position, indicating that it had completed the cycle. Brumley manually pushed the ejector switch to see if the rod would push the punch and broken tools from the die, but nothing happened. Brumley did nothing further until the next day, when he and another supervisor, Jim Kaylor took apart the machine to try to figure out what went wrong. They discovered that the coil on the time delay switch had burned out, which caused the ejector to go in an elevated position and remain there. This meant that when the ram of the press came down to mold the metal slug, the punch struck the ejector rod, causing the explosion.

Following the accident, Brumley designed and installed a plexiglass shield on the press that moved up and down with the ram of the press. Brumley admitted that if the plexiglass shield had been installed on the press prior to the date of the accident, it would have prevented plaintiff's injuries. He also installed a proximity limit switch on the press after the accident. The limit switch automatically turns off the power running to the press. Brumley admitted that if the proximity limit switch had been installed on the press, the accident would not have happened.

Brumley was aware when he purchased the time delay switch that the coil would eventually burn out because it is not possible to manufacture a coil that will last forever. However, Best Metals did not conduct periodic safety tests of the coils to determine whether they had burned out. Brumley indicated that he was familiar with continuity testers, which essentially alert the user if a coil is burned out. Instead of using continuity testers, Best Metals' operators would stop the operation if they smelled a certain burning odor that was emitted when the time delay switches burned out.

Furnas moved for summary judgment on the ground that the time delay switch was not defective when it left the control of Furnas; that the time delay switch completed more than one million cycles over seven years of consistent use before this incident; that it is impossible to manufacture a product that will not wear out; and that Furnas simply manufactured a component part that was taken by a third party and integrated it into a larger system over which Furnas exercised no control.

Furnas further argued that the party who designed and added the ejector pin system to the press failed to install certain safety features that would have prevented the accident from occurring. Therefore, it was the punch press that was defectively designed and proximately caused the injury, not the condition of the time delay switch.

In his response to Furnas' motion for summary judgment, plaintiff argued that Furnas should have warned Brumley, the designer of the ejector pin system, that backup safety systems should be involved in any application of the switch. Plaintiff also argued that Furnas had a duty to supply the user of the delay switch with data concerning the switch's normal service life and to warn the user to select the wiring option that would avoid or minimize the risk of injury when the switch eventually wore out. Furnas replied that it owed no duty to warn about any purported dangers associated with the switch.

The lower court granted Furnas' motion for summary judgment, finding that Furnas had no duty to warn prospective users as to the duration of its product.

Plaintiff's sole issue on appeal is whether the maker of a switch has a duty to warn that the switch can fail without warning and must be wired so that its failure will not leave the machine on which it is being used in a condition dangerous to its user.

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, and admissions, together with any affidavits, show there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Champaign National Bank v. Babcock, 273 Ill. App. 3d 292, 299, 652 N.E.2d 848, 853 (1995). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a trial court must view all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Rotzoll v. Overhead Door Corp., 289 Ill. App. 3d 410, 413, 681 N.E.2d 156, 158 (1997). We review de novo grants of summary judgment. Malone v. American Cyanamid Co., 271 Ill. App. 3d 843, 845, 649 N.E. 2d 493, 495 (1995).

A product may be unreasonably dangerous due to a manufacturing defect, a failure to warn, or a defect in design. Rotzoll, 289 Ill. App. 3d at 413, 681 N.E.2d at 158. Although a failure to warn can render a product unreasonably dangerous, a duty to warn is not required where the product is not defectively designed or manufactured, and where the possibility of injury results from a common propensity of the product which is open and obvious. Lister v. Bill Kelley Athletic, Inc., 137 Ill. App. 3d 829, 836, 485 N.E.2d 483, 487 (1985). The determination of whether a duty to warn exists is a question of law and not of fact. McColgan v. Environmental Control Systems, Inc., 212 Ill. App. 3d 696, 700, 571 N.E.2d 815, 818 (1991). Generally, a duty to warn exists when there is unequal knowledge and the defendant possessed with such knowledge, knows or should know that harm might occur if no warning is given. McColgan, 212 Ill. App. 3d at 700, 571 N.E.2d at 818. A manufacturer must give both adequate directions for use and adequate warnings against potential dangers in the use of its product. Oberg v. Advance Transformer Co., Inc., 210 Ill. App. 3d 246, 249, 569 N.E.2d 50, 52 (1991). When a danger is obvious and generally appreciated, nothing of value is gained by a warning and none is required. McColgan, 212 Ill. App. 3d at 701, 571 N.E.2d at 818.

The switch had been used for more than seven years. Plaintiff does not contend that the switch was dangerous at its inception but that Furnas should have warned that sometime in the future it would become so due to its age. However, both plaintiff and Brumley admitted that the switch would eventually wear out. Thus, an additional warning to that effect from Furnas would have served no useful purpose. In addition, a warning that the life expectancy of the Furnas switch was about one million cycles would have served no purpose since Best Metals did not have a systematic maintenance program to determine when parts needed to be replaced.

Plaintiff argues that Furnas had a duty to warn the user about the proper wiring option to select because wiring the switch in a normally-open position could have prevented the accident.

Although the manufacturer of a component part may be held liable under strict liability, such a manufacturer will not be liable if the injury resulted from a dangerous condition created by the party who created the final product. Depre v. Power Climber, Inc., 263 Ill. App. 3d 116, 118, 635 N.E.2d 542, 544 (1994). The time delay switch manufactured by Furnas could be used in different machines in any number of ways. Brumley designed the punch press and the ejector control system which incorporated the Furnas product. The Furnas switch was not in itself a dangerous part. Brumley admitted that he could have wired the coils in the time delay switch in a normally-open position, so that the electric current would not flow through the switch if and when the contacts wore out, which could have prevented the accident. He admitted he read and understood all of the instructions which accompanied the Furnas time delay switch but wired the switch so that its contacts were normally-closed, causing the time delay feature to fail and the electrical current to continue flowing to the press, which led to plaintiff's accident. Since Brumley made the decision as to how the Furnas switch would be used, Furnas had no duty to warn.

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the circuit court is affirmed.


HOFFMAN and HALL, JJ., concur.


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