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Thakore v. Universal Machine Co. of Pottstown

August 28, 2008

RITA THAKORE AND VATSAL THAKORE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNIVERSAL MACHINE CO. OF POTTSTOWN, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert W. Gettleman United States District Judge

Judge Robert W. Gettleman

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Rita Thakore ("Rita") and her husband Vatsal Thakore ("Vatsal") sued Universal Machine Co. of Pottstown, Inc., to recover for workplace injuries Rita suffered when a heat seal press manufactured by defendant closed unexpectedly, crushing and burning her hand. Rita asserts claims for damages based on theories of strict liability (Count I) and negligence (Count III). Vatsal asserts loss of consortium claims based on the same underlying theories of liability (Counts II and IV). Defendant has filed two motions: (1) for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs' claims, and (presumably in the alternative) to exclude any claim for damages relating to Rita's burn injury or to Vatsal's loss of sexual relations; and (2) to bar the testimony of Plaintiffs' expert Gene Olson. For the reasons discussed below, the motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part, and the motion to bar plaintiffs' expert is denied.

DISCUSSION

Motion for Summary Judgment*fn1

On March 1, 2004, Rita Thakore was a production technician at CIBA Vision's ("CIBA") contact lens manufacturing facility in Des Plaines, Illinois. On that day, while operating a heat seal press manufactured by defendant, the heated upper portion of the press, called a "platen," descended unexpectedly, crushing and trapping Rita's hand. Rita quickly called for help, and several colleagues came to her rescue, but they were unable immediately to free her hand. After approximately five to six minutes, Rita's colleagues succeeded in manually forcing the press open enough to release Rita's hand. By that time, however, the heat of the press had penetrated the heat resistant glove Rita was wearing, and she suffered both fractures and burns as a result of the accident.

The function of the heat seal press was to seal a foil upper portion of contact lens packaging materials onto a plastic lower portion known as an "array," which contained contact lenses and lens solution. Because of a production glitch that occurred periodically (as often as several times a day), melted plastic from the array sometimes became stuck to the heated upper platen of the press. When this happened, the production line stopped automatically, and the melted plastic had to be removed from the upper platen before production could resume. Removal of the plastic was typically performed by production technicians such as Rita, who manually wiped the melted plastic from the upper platen with the aid of a heat-resistant glove that was kept on hand. This is what Rita was doing when the accident occurred.

The heat seal press included a "latch," the purpose of which was to hold the upper platen up any time the pneumatic pressure normally exerted during operation was released. One circumstance in which the pneumatic pressure was released was during an emergency stop, or "E-stop," a mode in which the entire line was immediately shut down. Rita had switched her production line into E-stop mode prior to attempting to clean the melted plastic from the upper platen. Post-accident investigation by CIBA revealed that when the press was repeatedly powered on and then "E-stopped," the latch system intermittently failed to hold up the upper platen.

A review of the parties' respective Rule 56.1 statements reveals at least the following disputes:*fn2 whether the latch on the heat press was conceived and designed as a safety device; whether the latch contained two springs or one when it left defendant's control; whether CIBA altered the heat seal press after it was installed by defendant; and whether defendant knew or should have known about the manner in which CIBA production managers cleaned melted plastic from the heat seal press.

In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court must construe the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Where the parties disagree over relevant facts, the court resolves genuine factual ambiguities in plaintiff's favor. Foley v. City of Lafayette, 359 F.3d 925, 928 (7th Cir. 2004). To prevail on their claims under a theory of strict liability, plaintiffs must prove that Rita's injuries resulted from a defect in defendant's heat seal press that existed at the time the press left defendant's control and that rendered the press unreasonably dangerous. Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp., 224 Ill.2d 247, 254, 864 N.E.2d., 249 (2007) (citing Suvada v. White Motor Co., 32 Ill.2d 612, 622-23, 210 N.E.2d 182 (1965)). To prevail on their claims of negligence, plaintiffs must prove that defendant owed them a duty of reasonable care in the design of the heat seal press, that it breached that duty, and that the breach caused plaintiffs' injuries, resulting in damages. Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp., 224 Ill.2d 247, 864 N.E.2d 249, 270 (2007).

Defendant first argues that plaintiffs' strict liability claims cannot survive summary judgment because the heat seal press was an improvement to real property and therefore beyond the reach of strict products liability. Defendant next argues that even if the heat seal press could be the basis for plaintiffs' strict liability claims, those claims cannot survive because: (1) there is no evidence to show that any defect existed at the time the press left defendant's control; (2) plaintiffs have abandoned their manufacturing defect claims; (3) there is no evidence of any defect in the emergency stop mode; (4) CIBA altered the latch intended to hold the upper platen; (5) Rita misused the press; (6) defendant had no duty to warn plaintiffs of any danger; and (7) plaintiffs' claims fail for lack of expert testimony.

As to plaintiffs' negligence claims, defendant contends that: (1) it had no duty to plaintiffs; (2) even if it had a duty, defendant satisfied that duty; (3) CIBA altered and Rita misused the product, relieving defendant from liability; and (4) plaintiffs' claims fail for lack of expert testimony.

Finally, defendant argues that plaintiffs' damages should be limited because: (1) Rita's burn injury could have been avoided regardless of the product's alleged defect, if only her colleagues had known how to use a "key" to open the press; and (2) plaintiffs have stipulated that they are not seeking damages associated to the loss of sexual relations.

The court need not address each of these arguments individually, first because they are overlapping, and second, because with a few exceptions noted below, nearly all of them are either undermined by key factual disputes or wrong as a matter of law. The following brief discussion ...


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