No Liability Because Cause Of Deadly Accident Is In Doubt

Kennedy v. Joy Technologies Inc., 455 F.Supp.2d 522 (W.D.Va. 2006).

Gregory R. Kennedy was operating a continuous miner machine for his West Virginia employer when the machine crushed and killed him. The machine was manufactured and sold by Joy Technologies Inc. A remote control unit, called a TX-3 remote, was a component of the machine and was supplied by Matric Ltd.

The administratrix of Kennedy's estate sued Joy Technologies and Matric Ltd., asserting that they were responsible for Kennedy's death. She said the TX-3 remote was defectively designed and allowed coal fines and debris to accumulate in and clog its sockets that contained the lever controls for the machine's tracks or "trams." The clogging allegedly prevented controls from returning to neutral positions. She alledged that the defect produced an "unplanned machine movement" that pinned Kennedy between the machine and the mine wall, killing him. An expert witness, Dr. Thomas W. Butler, testified in deposition that the accident was caused by accumulated debris in a tram-control-lever socket.

In granting summary judgment for the defendants before trial, the federal trial court in West Virginia concluded that the plaintiff did not prove that the accident was caused by a defect in the TX-3 remote. The court stated: "Dr. Butler did no testing nor performed any calculations regarding the accident and admitted that there could be alternative explanations for the accident that were beyond his experience." Concluding that Dr. Butler's deposition "clearly shows that his opinion is merely supposition," the court excluded his testimony.

According to the court: "While it is certainly possible that this tragic accident was caused by an excessive accumulation of coal fines and debris in the control sockets, the evidence is equally strong that the unplanned movement of the left-hand tram resulted from other causes — for example an electronic malfunction (as suggested by one of the plaintiff's former experts) or an inadvertent error on the operator's part (as suggested by a defense expert)."

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