On February 19, 1997, Boris Rodriguez, an employee of Van Teale Inc., a Florida manufacturer of acrylic lighting fixtures, was sanding and polishing acrylic surfaces when the power sander he was operating released a part that went into his eye. He sued the sander manufacturer, National Detroit Inc., which had sold the sander to Van Teale in 1988, asserting that it was defective.
At trial, Rodriguez's expert witness testified that a screw, which secured the crankshaft to the counterweight, was defective, and the rubber boot, which encased the sander's moving parts, was not strong enough to contain the counterweight. This caused the sander to release parts that would otherwise have been retained inside the rubber boot in the event the screw failed, he said. The expert concluded that a stronger screw and rubber boot would have prevented Rodriguez's injury.
National Detroit's expert stated that the sander was safe as manufactured in 1988, and both the counterweight screw and the rubber boot had been modified and substantially altered after the sander left the manufacturer. Among other things, he said the screw was different from the one used when originally manufactured. A repairer for a tool company testified that he had disassembled and overhauled the sander six days before Rodriguez's injury.
The Florida trial court granted judgment for National Detroit. Rodriguez appealed to the state District Court of Appeal and lost. That court noted, to prevail in his product-liability claim against National Detroit, Rodriguez had to show that his injury was caused by a dangerous product whose defects existed at the time the product left the manufacturer's control. "There is undisputed evidence that establishes the sander was materially and substantially altered and/or changed from the condition in which National Detroit had originally manufactured and sold it, and the alterations and changes caused the sander to fail on the day of the accident," the court stated. "There is also insufficient evidence in this record from which to determine that the sander was unreasonably dangerous at the time in which it left National Detroit."
Witness to coworker's death sues for injury
Marilyn Bray worked for Baron Blackmon at General Electric Corp.'s plant in Florence, S.C. On March 5, 1994, Blackmon was inside a trash compactor to repair it. When Bray approached the trash compactor to discard a bag of trash, Blackmon asked Bray to start it up. Bray pressed the "start" button, which caused the ram to move toward Blackmon instead of away from him. Bray tried to stop the compactor, but the ram would remain stopped only as long as she maintained pressure on the "stop" button. Because Blackmon was pinned inside the compactor, Bray released the button and ran for help. When she returned, she found Blackmon unconscious. He later died from his injuries. Bray filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the trash compactor, Marathon Corp., asserting that the compactor was defectively designed and manufactured and that she suffered serious and permanent physical injuries caused by the trauma of witnessing her coworker's death.
The South Carolina trial court granted summary judgment to Marathon before trial on Bray's product-liability claim, because Bray was not in direct danger from the operation of the compactor and her alleged injuries were the result of observing Blackmon's injuries. Bray appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which reinstated her claim. The Supreme Court of South Carolina granted certiorari to review the case. The court noted that state law reads, "One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer . . ." According to the court, Bray was a user because she operated the compactor's controls. The court also concluded, "Bray's alleged physical injuries arising from emotional trauma constitute physical harm."
Based on this, the court ruled that Bray was entitled to take her claim against Marathon to trial. The court stated, "It is not unreasonable to conclude the user of a defective product might suffer physical harm from emotional damage if the use of the product results in death or serious injury to a third person."