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Wojnarowski v. Furnas Electric Co.

June 30, 1999

RICHARD WOJNAROWSKI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
FURNAS ELECTRIC COMPANY, INC., AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE, AND FLOLO CORPORATION, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



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 ...


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