During the smelting process at the Vanalco aluminumreduction plant in Vancouver, Wash., an overhead crane and hook placed a bridge on top of a large pot containing molten aluminum. The hook grasped the bridge, and a metal latch, called a mouse, went over the hook's mouth. The mouse was secured by a T-bolt, which was tightened by hand. Carbon setters connected and disconnected the bridge to the pot with an airpressure hose.
On Oct. 31, 1997, the crane operator moved the bridge from one pot to another. Thinking the operator had finished moving the bridge, Taurino Sepulveda-Esquivel, a carbon setter at Vanalco who had been standing on the steps next to the pots, went onto the catwalk between the pots to adjust some machinery. However, the crane operator, thinking the bridge was not properly placed, lifted it off the pot to adjust it. The hook came loose from the 2,500-lb bridge, which fell on Sepulveda, seriously injuring him.
Claiming the hook was defective, Sepulveda filed a productliability suit against Central Machine Works Inc. and Ulven Forging Inc. The hook used by Vanalco was originally designed by Alcoa, which Vanalco bought in 1987. In the early 1990s, Vanalco ordered hooks from Central and provided Central with a modified drawing of the Alcoa design. Central then asked Ulven Forging Inc. to make the hook because it did not have the capacity to forge. Ulven made the hooks with a die that originally belonged to an old supplier of Alcoa, and Central performed the finishing work on them. The hooks were not designed with a mouse — Vanalco attached the mouse to the hook. The hook involved in Sepulveda's accident was placed on the crane about two months before the accident.
The Washington trial court dismissed Sepulveda's suit, and he appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals, arguing that Central and Ulven were either manufacturers or sellers of a defective product. The Washington Product Liability Act imposes liability on the manufacturers and sellers of defective products. The court dismissed the appeal, ruling, "In this case, neither Central nor Ulven made, supplied, or sold the finished, completed hook assembly with the mouse. Neither Central nor Ulven was asked to design, forge, make, or sell an interior, locking device on their hook. Because there was no defect in the hook itself, Ulven is without fault, as is Central because it did not design the hook and merely provided the hook according to the purchaser's specifications."
Surveyor negligent in locating auto-plant columns
Because the tolerances for the 10 columns in the addition were extremely tight, AIC decided to hire a professional surveying firm to locate the columns, which could be no more than 1/8 in. out of alignment. AIC hired Fleming Engineers Inc. to do the survey. Johnny Register Jr. performed the survey, with assistance from John Davis, both Fleming employees.
After the survey, AIC began construction and discovered that the line of columns forming the south wall of the structure was not parallel to the north wall. Four of the five columns on the south wall were off — one by 1.75 in., one by 2.75 in., one by 4.375 in., and one by 5.75 in. While the columns were not parallel to the south wall, they were in a straight line with each other, but each was a little farther from the wall. AIC had to reposition the columns at a cost of $23,000.
AIC sued Fleming, asserting it had negligently misidentified the location of the columns. Fleming replied that AIC had improperly placed the columns after Fleming had correctly set the center points.
At trial, Register testified he had worked with an electronic transit. Davis operated the transit while Register marked with nails both the center points for the columns and offset points. The offset points were needed because AIC would have to remove the center points to dig footers for the columns. To relocate the center points after the footers had been dug, AIC employees attached nylon strings to the offset-point nails and pulled them taut. The point where the strings intersected indicated the center point for each column.
Scott Flanigan, AIC's manager for the Honda project, stated that, while setting the columns, he discovered that part of a concrete slab extended into the area for the footer for the fourth column on the south wall and had to be removed. The "batter board" containing the offset nail set by Register was attached to the slab and had to be moved. After the slab was removed, the batter board was moved back, and a string attached to the original offset nail was extended back to the new batter board. Flanigan said he had used a technique that allowed him to accurately recreate the center point for that column.
The trial judge ruled for AIC, concluding that Fleming had miscalculated the location of the columns along the south wall. Fleming appealed, arguing that the south columns became misaligned when AIC moved the batter board and recreated the center point for the fourth column. Reviewing the testimony, the North Carolina Court of Appeals noted that Flanigan, and other witnesses, had testified that three of the south columns were already placed based on the Fleming offset points, and that only the fourth column could have been affected by the moving of the batter board. "The evidence established that all four columns were misaligned," said the court. Upholding the verdict for AIC, the appeals court concluded, "The trial judge was entitled to draw the inference that, since the line was straight, but not at the correct angle, and since all four columns on the south line were misaligned, rather than just the one affected by the moved batter board, Fleming was more likely than not the source of the error."