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Machine maker not liable for injury

On June 11, 2001, Linda Thompson was injured while operating a circuitboard laminating machine for Sheldahl Inc., a Minnesota manufacturer.

On June 11, 2001, Linda Thompson was injured while operating a circuitboard laminating machine for Sheldahl Inc., a Minnesota manufacturer. As Thompson tried to clean adhesive drips from the machine's rollers while the machine was running, the laminating material caught her glove pulling her arm in and crushing it by the nip rollers.

The laminator, manufactured in 1994 by Hirano Tecseed Co. Ltd., to Sheldahl specifications, required moving rollers that met at nip points. Hirano's design included a safety-glass enclosure around the moving rollers, a manual shut-off switch inside the enclosure, rigid metal safety bars to prevent objects from coming into contact with the nip points and a posted warning: "Danger, watch your hands and fingers." Sheldahl rejected Hirano's offer to build the enclosure with safety interlocks that would automatically stop the machine if the enclosure doors were opened.

While testing the machine at Sheldahl's plant, Hirano and Sheldahl discovered that the adhesive used in the manufacturing process frequently dripped onto the laminating material as it passed over the rollers requiring the operator to clean the rollers.

The instruction manual written by Hirano stated: "Generally, all work to be done on this machine must be carried out on machine standstill (dead stop)." It warned that the machine's "rollers may only be turned in cases that are absolutely unavoidable." It also recommended the operator turn only one roller at a time with "cleaning speed" while cleaning rollers.

Sheldahl's managers did not give Hirano's manual to its operators and trained them to clean the rollers while the machine was running to avoid wasting valuable material that again dripped when the machine was restarted.

Thompson filed a product-liability suit against Hirano, claiming the laminator machine was defectively designed. Hirano asked the trial court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, to grant summary judgment for it before trial, arguing it could not be held liable for a design defect because it manufactured the machine according to Sheldahl's specifications.

The court agreed, stating manufacturers have no duty to warn of dangers that are open and obvious, and the risks inherent in the machine's roller pinch point were open and obvious. The court also noted Hirano placed a warning on the machine and provided a manual containing pinchpoint warnings.

Thompson v. Hirano Tecseed Co., 371 F.Supp. 2d 1049 (D.Minn. 2005), U.S. Disrtrict Court, District of Minnesota, May 23, 2005.

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