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Robenhorst v. Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems

March 6, 2008

BRETT T. ROBENHORST, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SIEMENS LOGISTICS AND ASSEMBLY SYSTEMS, INC. DEFENDANT,



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael T. Mason, United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Brett T. Robenhorst filed a complaint to recover damages for personal injuries he sustained from a workplace accident involving an automatic guided vehicle ("AGV") manufactured by Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems, Inc. n/k/a Dematic Corp. ("Dematic"). Dematic moves for summary judgment on the basis that, on the record assembled, plaintiff cannot establish a prima facia case of negligence. For the reasons stated below, Dematic's motion is denied.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff was an employee of Ford Motor Company ("Ford") and sustained his injuries while working at Ford's Chicago Heights Stamping Plant (the "Ford Plant"). The Ford Plant utilizes an AGV system. An AGV system is one of many types of material movement systems that can be integrated into a manufacturing plant. Ford maintained and operated the AGV system on a daily basis. Dematic contends that the industrial engineers at the Ford Plant selected the AGV system and further contends that Ford choose the location of stops, system routes and the number of vehicles and trailers incorporated into the AGV system.*fn2 In contrast, plaintiff contends that Dematic engineered a standard product which included the AGV battery chargers, plate wire, responders and constant system monitoring software which was customized for a specific customer - Ford. Plaintiff further contends that "nothing was done" to the AGV system without Dematic's involvement and that Dematic was frequently on site and approved or was aware of all changes to the AGV system.

On November 3, 2004, the date on which he sustained his injuries, plaintiff was assigned to station 50 on the Ford Plant floor. Ford did not provide plaintiff with the required station-specific personnel qualifications before assigning him to station 50. Station 50 was located at the west end of Line 191. It was possible for more than one AGV to be in the loop at Line 191. Station 50 included a manstand, or raised platform, which functioned as a loading station. Dematic contends that it did not design, supply, install or recommend the use of a manstand. An electrical switch was also present at the west end of Line 191, which could be used to jog any AGV at that station forward.

Immediately prior to the incident, plaintiff was loading panels onto a stationary trailer pulled by an AGV (the "Station 50 AGV"). While loading the panels, plaintiff stepped off the manstand and stood in a gap between the manstand and the stationary trailer. He did so in violation of Ford Plant procedures. Plaintiff also "jogged" the Station 50 AGV, which pulled the trailer he was loading forward. As plaintiff continued loading the trailer, it was struck by a trailer pulled by another AGV ("AGV #22"). The resulting impact pushed the stationary trailer into the manstand, trapping plaintiff's left leg between the trailer and the manstand platform. Plaintiff's leg was later amputated below the knee.

The AGV vehicles at issue were manufactured by Dematic and sold to Ford in 1998.*fn3 At that time, Dematic provided Ford with an Operations and Maintenance Manual (the "Manual") to be used as a guide and reference when servicing the AGV's. Ford maintained a copy of the Manual in its truck shop.

Each AGV vehicle at Ford was equipped with a bumper. The bumper is the primary safety device for the AGV vehicles and is designed to stop a vehicle if it comes into contact with an unexpected or unforseen object, such as a person, a piece of equipment, a trailer, or another AGV. As manufactured, the AGV bumper is made from a polycarbonate material which allows the bumper to correctly react to contact forces. A compression on the bumper from an outside source triggers an electrical switch, which stops the vehicle. Dematic did not maintain or routinely repair the AGV vehicles. Rather, Ford's truck mechanics maintained and repaired the AGV vehicles at the Ford Plant, including AGV #22 and its bumper. The bumper on AGV #22 had been worked on by Ford personnel on November 2, 2004 - the night before the accident.

Following the accident, Ford employees removed the bumper on AGV #22 and gave it to two Dematic employees for testing. With Ford's permission, the bumper was taken to Dematic's facility in Grand Rapids where it was inspected, measured and tested. The inspection revealed that the bumper was not a Dematic bumper. In fact, Dematic's standard bumper, which was provided with each AGV when sold, had been replaced. The bumper on AGV #22 at the time of the accident (the "Ford Bumper") was fabricated by Ford or someone hired by Ford, not Dematic, and was not made out of original parts.*fn4 Ford decided to do this for cost reasons; ordering a bumper from another source was less expensive than ordering Dematic's standard replacement bumper. The Ford Plant had not ordered a standard Dematic bumper for this model AGV since 1999.

Dematic's inspection and testing of the Ford Bumper revealed that it differed from the standard Dematic bumper and the recommendations outlined in the Manual in a number of ways. First, the Ford Bumper was spliced, which was specifically prohibited by the Manual. The two broken parts of the leaf resulting from the splice were mounted tighter by overlapping and bolting with three fasteners. The location of this splice was at a critical point. It affected the reaction to the bumper cables which sensed contact by relieving the tension on the cables attached to the switch that opened the safety circuit of the vehicle. This improper splice was also not installed square to the bumper. Second, the leaf material for the bumper was not processed in accordance with Dematic specifications, which increased the bumper's susceptibility to breakage. Third, the Ford Bumper stiffener was not supplied by Dematic, another condition prohibited by the Manual. The new stiffener was made of thinner material than Dematic's standard stiffener, which could cause the tension on the cables to not relieve, thus causing the vehicle to continue traveling after coming in contact with an object. Further, the bumper stiffener was mounted off center. Finally, hinges on both sides of the Ford Bumper were damaged and had not been repaired. The right side hinge was significantly deformed and did not move.

After Dematic completed its testing of the Ford Bumper, Dematic hand delivered the bumper to Ford's Director of Safety and Human Resources. Despite a court order requiring Ford to maintain and preserve the equipment at issue in this case, Ford subsequently misplaced or destroyed the Ford Bumper. Because Ford has been unable to locate the Ford Bumper, it has not been available for testing or observation by the parties' experts.

Plaintiff filed a single count complaint against Dematic in Cook County Circuit Court asserting that Dematic was negligent in one or more of the following ways:

(a) engineered, designed & created the AGV system in the assembly plantso that vehicles & trailers using the tracks could foreseably collide, creating a substantial risk of injury;*fn5

(b) incorporated a goggle switch design*fn6 near line 191 whose use would permit AGV's to collide, causing ...


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