United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
January 29, 2004.
GARY ELMORE, Plaintiff
ROCKWELL AUTOMATION; VERSA CONVEYOR; DEARBORN MIDWEST CONVEYOR CO.; GATES RUBBER CO.; AND CONTROL LOGIC INC., Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ELAINE E. BUCKLO, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On May 17, 2000, plaintiff Gary Elmore was gravely injured when his
arm became entangled in the conveyor system he was maintaining at the
U.S. Postal Service's central processing facility in Illinois. The
conveyor system used at the plant was built by defendant Dearborn Midwest
Conveyor Company ("Dearborn") using electrical controls built by
defendant Control Logic, Inc. ("Control"), a subcontractor of Dearborn.
When mail transported by the conveyor system fell off the mail carts,
it would collect behind safety screens at points along the route. In
order to retrieve this mail, Mr. Elmore had to unscrew the bolts
connecting the screen to the system, gather the mail, and replace the
screen. His injury occurred when he was attempting to reattach the screen
and his hand slipped into the conveyor system.
Dearborn moves for summary judgment on Counts V and VI of the amended
complaint, which seek damages against Dearborn under
theories of strict liability and negligence, respectively. On a motion
for summary judgment, I must evaluate admissible evidence in the light
most favorable to the non-moving party and grant the motion only if the
case presents no genuine issue of material fact. Bennett v. Roberts,
295 F.3d 687, 694 (7th Cir. 2000).
In its motion, Dearborn relies exclusively on the government contractor
defense explained in Boyle v. United Techs. Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988)
and applied in Oliver v. Oshkosh Truck Corp., 96 F.3d 992 (7th Cir.
1996). The defense applies to protect government contractors from
liability for design defects where "(1) the United States approved
reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those
specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the
dangers in the use of the equipment." Boyle, 487 U.S. at 512. This
defense is not sufficient to justify summary judgment because a genuine
issue of material fact exists as to whether Dearborn satisfied the second
prong of the test. The postal service specifications for the conveyor
system stated that the system had to conform to any OSHA safety
requirements which were more rigorous or stringent than the safety
mechanisms described in the specifications. Mr. Elmore's expert witness,
James Des Jardins, an engineer employed by a mechanical design consulting
firm, offers testimony that in violation of OSHA guidelines, the safety
screens offered a hazard in an of themselves, the machine did not have a
warning label at points
where a warning was required, and the emergency stop button was too far
from the nip point. This is sufficient to defeat summary judgment on the
issue of whether the machine conformed to government specifications. See
Almon v. Burroughs Corp., No 86-C100, 1988 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 961, at *5-6
(N.D. Ill. Feb. 10, 1988) (Hart, J.). The motion for summary judgment on
Counts V and VI is DENIED.
Control moves separately for summary judgment on Counts IX and X of the
amended complaint, but the analysis of the issue is very similar. Control
was responsible for electrical control boxes on the conveyor system.
Therefore, the safety of the guard design is not at issue with respect to
Control. However, the placement of the shutoff switch and the presence or
absence of warnings thereon present the same questions of fact as the
guard design. Control relies on the testimony of its own expert and of
one of Mr. Elmore's colleagues that the warnings were present and
adequate and that the shutoff switch was properly located. However
persuasive this evidence may be, I am constrained by the rule that
summary judgment is appropriate only when questions of law remain. The
adequacy of a warning and the safe location of a shutoff switch are
indisputably questions of fact. Where the plaintiff presents conflicting
expert testimony, I cannot say that a reasonable jury could not find Mr.
Elmore's expert more convincing than Control's.
Therefore, the motion for summary judgment on Counts IX and IX is
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