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Wallis v. Townsend Vision

July 10, 2009

KIMBERLY WALLIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSEND VISION, INC., D/B/A TOWNSEND ENGINEERING COMPANY, AN IOWA CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This case is before the Court on three motions for partial summary judgment filed by the Plaintiff.

Plaintiff Kimberly Wallis filed this two-count lawsuit against Defendant Townsend Vision, Inc., asserting claims for strict liability in Count I and negligence in Count II. The lawsuit stems from an incident that occurred at Cargill Meat Solutions, Inc., a pork processing facility in Beardstown, Illinois, where Wallis was employed. An assembly-line process was set up whereby a conveyor brought ham butts (which are actually the shoulders of a hog) to a skinning and "de-fatting" station. There were two Townsend Model 7600 butt skinning machines at the station. Wallis was injured when her left hand was caught and drawn in between the spiked roller and cutting blade of one of the machines. Her injuries included severe damage to her thumb, left hand and loss of her little finger.

I. BACKGROUND

Kim Wallis is a 31-year old woman who was afflicted with bilateral congenital hearing loss when she was a child. She accepted employment with Cargill Meat Solutions, Inc. in Beardstown in March 2004.

On September 28, 2005, Wallis was one of three butt skinning machine operators who were working on a pork processing line at Cargill. The other operators were Juana Soto and Ismael Rivera. Terry Cagle, the lead man at Cargill, had supervisory control over the pork processing line, though Townsend alleges that Cagle did not see the accident occur and has no personal knowledge of what the specific serial number of the involved machine was.

The plant processed 2440 pork butts per hour. These butts would be delivered to the person operating the butt skinning machine on a conveyor belt which ran between two machines. The operator of the appropriate machine took the butts off the line with one hand and put them through the skinning machine with the other hand.

Wallis claims that the undisputed testimony is that on September 28, 2005, she was operating the Townsend 7600 skinning machine to the left of the pork conveyor belt. Townsend disputes this allegation and claims that Darrell Taber, a Cargill maintenance mechanic, pulled Wallis's glove for her left, non-dominant (injured) hand out of the machine right after the accident. Taber recalled that he pulled her glove out of the left side of the machine that had the de-fatting blade that curved upward and to the left. This is the machine with the serial number 170. At the time of the post-accident inspection, this machine was on the right side of the conveyor line. Townsend asserts that this is the same machine that Cargill personnel pointed out to the accident investigators after the accident. Moreover, Cargill Safety Engineer Ricky Clayton testified that this accident occurred on machine serial number 170.

In the fall of 2006, Cargill allowed John Kovalan, a technical consultant for Wallis, and attorneys for the parties, to enter the plant to inspect the machine and processing line where Wallis was working on the day of the accident. The plant was not in production at the time of this visit. Kovalan first started to inspect the skinning machine on the left side of the conveyor belt, but a Cargill maintenance employee told Wallis's attorney that Wallis was working on the Townsend machine on the right of the pork conveyor belt at the time she was injured.

The Townsend 7600 skinning machine on the right side of the conveyor belt was identified through discovery as being Townsend Unit 170, which apparently was first sold by Townsend as early as 1994. The Townsend 7600 skinner, Number 170, located on the right side of the conveyor belt, would never be switched over to operate on the left side of the conveyor belt, according to the deposition testimony of Lincoln Woods, who was Cargill's Plant Operations Manager on September 28, 2005. Townsend acknowledges that this is what Woods said, though it notes that other witnesses have testified to a lack of knowledge. Moreover, no Cargill witnesses, including Woods, have testified to actual knowledge of the specific serial number of the machine involved in Wallis's accident, nor has any witness explained why the parties were directed to inspect (according to Wallis) the "wrong" machine after the accident. Woods was not present at either the accident or the post-accident inspection.

The 7600 skinner on the left side of the conveyor belt was Unit 1815, which was sold and installed in the Cargill plant in October 1998. Townsend alleges that the machine was on the left side of the conveyor at the time of the post-accident inspection, though it is unknown what its location was at the time of the accident. Wallis claims that Terry Cagle, line supervisor Stacey Garcia, and co-worker Juana Soto have testified that the 7600 Townsend skinning machine which was on the left side of the conveyor belt the day of the accident was never used on the right side of the conveyor and remained on the left side of the conveyor until it was replaced by an automated machine some time after the inspection by the attorneys for the parties. In disputing this allegation, Townsend asserts that no one knows the serial number of the machine that was involved in the incident.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Summary Judgment Standard

The entry of summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with any affidavits, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.

B. Statute of Repose

(1)

One of Townsend's affirmative defenses is that Wallis's strict liability claim is barred by the Illinois Statute of Repose. Wallis seeks the entry of partial summary judgment on that defense and asks the Court to strike it.

The applicability of that defense turns on whether Wallis was injured on machine serial number 170 or machine serial number 1815. As it relates to this case, the Illinois statute of repose precludes strict liability actions that are not commenced within ten years "from the date of the first sale, lease or delivery of possession [of a ...


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