In March 2001, Donald Shaffer, a service engineer for Amada Engineering and Service Inc., was injured while servicing a press brake at Newco Inc.'s plant in St. Charles, Mo. As Shaffer was adjusting the lower-ram position of the press brake, his right hand got caught between the ram and the upper die, and he lost several fingers.
Shaffer sued Amada America Inc., the company that sold the press brake to Newco, claiming the machine had been defectively designed. As part of the pretrial proceedings, Shaffer retained an expert witness, a Ph.D. who taught mechanical engineering courses at the University of Illinois. The expert identified several things as design defects in the press brake. He suggested alternative designs, including safety guards and a foot-operated switch, that would have prevented Shaffer's injuries.
Amada moved for summary judgment before trial, arguing that Shaffer's expert witness had limited experience with press brakes like the one that injured Shaffer and had not designed or tested the devices he claimed would have prevented the accident. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri ruled the expert's testimony was inadmissible and dismissed Shaffer's lawsuit. According to the court, the expert's testimony was unreliable because it was not based on sufficient facts and data.
"This case involves a complex piece of industrial machinery," stated the court. "Because a finding of defect cannot rest on conjecture or speculation, Shaffer needs competent expert evidence to establish that this press brake is defective and unreasonably dangerous. Without expert testimony, we are left with evidence of an accident, and the fact an accident happened, standing alone, does not establish a case of product defect."
No liability for independent contractor's injury
Claude Gaspard was an employee of Kellogg Brown & Root that had a contract with DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC to package rubber at DuPont's Beaumont Works Plant in Beaumont, Tex. Rubber was compacted into 75-lb bales that were sent down a conveyor to a loader. On July 27, 1999, one of the compactors jammed due to a broken switch, and the line was shut down. This required Gaspard to manually remove a bale of rubber. While using a bale hook to lift the bale off the conveyor, Gaspard said he injured his neck, lower back, and shoulders.
Gaspard sued DuPont, asserting the company was negligent in failing to keep its premises safe and was responsible for his injury. DuPont argued it owed no duty to Gaspard because he was an employee of Brown & Root, an independent contractor.
Before trial, the trial court granted summary judgment for DuPont. Gaspard then appealed to the Texas Court of Appeals, which sided with DuPont. Although the court agreed that an owner has a duty to keep its premises safe for its business invitees, it concluded the case did not involve defective premises because the injury occurred when Gaspard manually removed the bale, not when the compactor jammed or the conveyor shut down.
Noting the depositions showed Brown & Root employees were supervised by other Brown & Root employees and not by DuPont, the court concluded, "There is no summary judgment evidence that DuPont retained the right to direct the method Brown & Root employees used when manually removing rubber bales from the conveyor." Thus, said the court, DuPont did not owe a duty to Gaspard.