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Kopczick v. Hobart Corp.

November 30, 1999


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 13th Judicial Circuit, Grundy County, Illinois, No. 94--L--30 Honorable Robert C. Marsaglia Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Slater

Plaintiff, Richard Kopczick, filed a complaint seeking damages from defendant, Hobart Corporation, for injuries he sustained while using a meat saw manufactured by defendant. Following a jury trial, the trial court entered judgment against defendant for $20 million in punitive damages and $553,644.74 in compensatory damages. On appeal, defendant contends, inter alia, that the trial court erred: (1) by denying defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict concerning the punitive damages award; (2) by denying defendant's motion for a new trial due to the misconduct of plaintiff's counsel; and (3) by granting plaintiff an excessive compensatory damages award. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the punitive damages award, but affirm the trial court's judgment in all other respects.

Initially, we note that defendant raises claims of error with respect to punitive damages other than the claim previously stated. Because we agree with defendant that the evidence is insufficient to warrant imposition of punitive damages, we need not address these other claims. Moreover, because defendant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting an award of compensatory damages, we recount and scrutinize only those portions of the trial court proceedings relevant to the imposition of punitive damages, the episodes of alleged misconduct by plaintiff's counsel, and the amount of compensatory damages.


The "vertical" or "straight" meat saw (the straight saw) is a motorized bandsaw with its blade set perpendicular to the saw's cutting surface. This design is, and has always been, the conventional design for a meat saw. Defendant is a leading manufacturer of commercial food- processing equipment, including meat saws. In 1979, defendant began developing a meat saw with its blade set at a 75-degree angle to the cutting surface. Defendant's engineers theorized that this 15-degree difference would reduce operator fatigue by introducing a horizontal force assisting operators to push meat through the saw. This design became known as the "horizontal" or "slant" saw (the slant saw). In January 1982, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) gave its approval to the slant saw. In its report, UL specifically found that the slant saw's horizontal force does not cause the saw to self-feed. In July 1982, defendant introduced the new design to the marketplace as its Model 5700. From 1982 through 1992, defendant sold 5,816 Model 5700s. During this period, it is a conservative estimate that meatcutters employed the Model 5700 to make 4,540,080,000 cuts of meat. Defendant continues to market the Model 5700.

D & S Foods (D & S) purchased a Model 5700 in 1983. Plaintiff is a journeyman meatcutter and the meat-market manager for D & S. On the morning of May 22, 1993, plaintiff severed his left index finger and lacerated his left middle finger while operating the Model 5700 owned by D & S. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking recovery from defendant for his injuries. Ultimately, as amended, the complaint consists of one count of negligence and one count of willful and wanton conduct. Common to both counts is the allegation that the design of the Model 5700 presents the user with an unreasonably dangerous condition, namely: the tendency of the Model 5700's angled blade to jerk, pull, and roll meat into the blade causing the operator to sustain injury when his hands are drawn into the blade along with the meat. *fn1 In count I, plaintiff alleges that defendant's manufacture and sale of the Model 5700 was merely negligent. In count II, plaintiff alleges that defendant's conduct constitutes a willful and wanton disregard for, and indifference to, his safety, entitling him to punitive damages.

At trial, plaintiff called nine meatcutters to the stand. Each meatcutter testified that he had observed the Model 5700 self-feed occasionally. Four of the meatcutters testified to sustaining injuries as a result of the Model 5700's tendency to self-feed. Each of the injured meatcutters testified he had sued defendant for damages resulting from his injury. One of the meatcutters, David Fuller, testified that Jim Potts, a regional sales manager for defendant, was present at Fuller's workplace when a Model 5700 shot a ham shank against a wall. Fuller estimated that this incident occurred sometime prior to 1985. The parties later stipulated to the following facts: that Potts acknowledged that he observed the incident described by Fuller during a January 1992 deposition; that defendant received notice of this testimony prior to plaintiff's injury; and that Potts never reported the incident to anyone employed by defendant.

Plaintiff presented documents showing that, prior to plaintiff's injury, defendant had received notice of 30 incidents in which meatcutters had claimed to have been injured as a result of the Model 5700's tendency to self-feed. These 30 incidents include the claims of the four injured meatcutters who testified at trial.

Donald Cetro testified that he is the business agent for a New Jersey union local which represents, among others, meatcutters. Previously, Cetro had been an assistant to Anthony Testa, then the director of safety for the union local. In 1984, Testa and he sent a letter (the Testa Letter) to defendant. The following is the pertinent text of the letter:

"[Y]ou now manufacture a slant saw that many butchers find to be very dangerous. Butchers have severed fingers on this saw.


Many butchers with as many as 30 [to] 40 years of service are very fearful of this slant saw. I'm sure that if you send a Hobart representative into the [workplace] and he spoke to the people about the slant saw, that you *** would probably call back these machines, as many car dealers call back cars that are unsafe."

Plaintiff presented six documents detailing the results of tests conducted by defendant. The first such document is a report, dated November 1981, which describes the results of tests comparing the cutting characteristics of the Model 5700 and the Model 5701, a straight saw manufactured by defendant. Among other observations, the author of the report notes that the Model 5700 produced "a few wedge cuts[,] *fn2 but this is characteristic when trying to force or jam [the meat] through [the blade]." The author also observed that "[a] couple of times the wedge cut pulled the blade over into the meat so [that,] when it exited[,] the blade hit the carriage back pusher." In response to this report, defendant made modifications to the Model 5700 intended to stabilize the saw's blade. These modifications were incorporated into the Model 5700 purchased by D & S in 1983.

The second report, dated December 1982, indicates the cutting performance of the Model 5700 improves when a four-tooth blade is substituted for a three-tooth blade. The third report, dated July 5, 1983, describes the results of tests comparing the cutting performance of the Model 5700 with the Model 5701 and the Model 5216, an older model straight saw manufactured by defendant. The fourth report, dated July 13, 1983, describes the results of tests comparing the cutting performance of the Model 5700, Model 5701, and Model 5216 when fitted with three-tooth, four-tooth, and eight-tooth blades. The remaining two reports describe the results of tests aimed at assessing the Model 5700's performance when fitted with different motors and its ability to cut various cheese products.

Charles Benedict, plaintiff's expert witness, opined that defendant must have known that the Model 5700 was an unreasonably dangerous product prior to plaintiff's 1993 injury. Benedict testified that the results of defendant's own 1981 tests should have put defendant on notice of the Model 5700's self-feeding defect. According to Benedict, "any competent engineer" would have been put on notice of the self- feeding ...

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