The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the dismissal of strict product liability and negligence claims brought against the manufacturer of a hydraulic press brake, a machine tool used to shape sheet metal, by a press operator who lost his hand after reaching into the machine to remove a jammed piece of metal and accidentally stepping on the foot pedal that activated the machine. Braswell v. Cincinnati Inc., No. 12-5128 (10th Cir., decided September 23, 2013).
The plaintiff had argued that the machine was defective because, despite all of its safety features, many of which had been disabled by previous owners, “it was not equipped with an anti-trip footswitch, which requires a complete depression of the pedal each time the operator wants to reinitiate the machine’s movement.” He also argued that the subsequent alterations did not insulate the defendant from liability because the alterations were reasonably foreseeable.
In the absence of any Oklahoma case law on the issue, the court did not address “what constitutes a reasonably foreseeable modification,” finding that the case could be resolved on the third strict-liability element: unreasonable dangerousness. Oklahoma courts continue to apply the Restatement (Second) of Torts’ “consumer expectations test,” so the court determined that the machine was not unreasonably dangerous as to a trained operator—the ordinary consumer or user of the press brake—who is aware of the “extreme danger and risk of reaching into the machine while having one’s foot remain anywhere near the footswitch, at least without disengaging or blocking the ram.” The ordinary operator “would also heed the warnings on the machine and in the instruction manual.” According to the court, the plaintiff “knew of the exact danger he faced. He admitted in his deposition that when a piece is jammed ‘[y]ou take your foot off of the pedal’ before reaching into the machine. Unfortunately, [the plaintiff] neglected to do just that.”
The court further declined to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s negligence claims, finding that he had waived both of the arguments on which he based his challenge.