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Schreffler v. Birdsboro Corp.

decided: January 24, 1974.



Hastie, Aldisert and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis


WEIS, Circuit Judge.

We are concerned in this case with the claim of error in the entry of a directed verdict for the defendant in a personal injury suit brought on the theory of defective design of industrial equipment. While the legal principles are not particularly complicated, the highly specialized nature of the machinery and manufacturing operations involved require a somewhat extended discussion of the factual background.

Appellant Chester S. Schreffler, an employee of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, was severely injured at its Steelton, Pennsylvania plant when a fellow employee caused a load of hot steel billets to be pushed against Mr. Schreffler, squeezing him against the side of the machine on which he was working. The accident occurred on March 13, 1965 as the appellant was fastening chains around a load of billets resting on a "transfer table" preparatory to having a crane lift them to a nearby railroad car.*fn1

In the course of his duties as a "cradleman," it was necessary for Schreffler to stand upon the "transfer table" which was located between the "straihtener" (a component utilized to straighten some of the rolled steel products manufactured in the mill) and the "shear" (a machine used to cut steel). The steel exiting from the "straightener" would be carried forward by a set of rollers, then moved in a reverse direction by a second set of rollers into the "shear" mechanism.

The "table" consisted generally of rollers in two parallel series separated by a number of parallel steel rails roughly twenty feet long and spaced five feet apart, running perpendicular to the line of direction of the rollers and at the same level above ground. A "rope drag" or "rope transfer," consisting of multiple depressible dogs pulled by chains, slid the various steel products over the rails from one series of rollers to the other. In addition to its function of facilitating the change of direction of the material being manufactured, the area between the rollers where the rails were located was intended to act as a temporary storage area for material being processed.

When Schreffler stepped onto a wire grating platform located between two of the rails, there were already two stacks of billets lying side-by-side on the surface of the rails. He had put the chain around the first stack of billets and was continuing his work when the accident occurred.

The rope drag operator had started an additional billet over the table from the first set of rollers to add to the second "load" when his attention was distracted by another billet coming out of the straightener. He was concerned about being struck by this billet, forgot that the billet on the table was continuing its progress toward the plaintiff, and consequently did not stop the machine in time.

The table was one of a number of items of mill equipment which had been manufactured by the defendant Birdsboro and installed in 1959 by the third-party defendant, Bethlehem.

Birdsboro, at the request of Bethlehem, had originally submitted a proposal to manufacture and sell the equipment in 1957, but the plan for a new mill was not carried through to fruition at that time. Bethlehem later revived the project, and with minor variations of the original plans and specifications, Birdsboro furnished the equipment in 1958 and early 1959.

The specifics of the machinery had been agreed upon after consultation between Birdsboro and Bethlehem engineers and to a great extent represented a joint effort of the two companies. It was understood that not all of the existing equipment in the Bethlehem plant was to be replaced, nor was Birdsboro given carte blanche to set up a complete mill. Bethlehem determined what new machinery and equipment it wanted and undertook the work of installation with its own employees. For example, while Bethlehem at one time had thought that it would extend its "cooling bed" and asked for a quotation from Birdsboro, that part of the project was never carried through, and Birdsboro was not asked to manufacture that item.

Although Bethlehem was to install the machinery, the contract did provide that Birdsboro was to have an erector on the scene to furnish technical advice. However, he was given no authority over anyone at Bethlehem. When the work was completed in March of 1959, the Birdsboro representative left the premises.

The installation of the transfer table, which measured 90 feet by 30 feet and had a gross weight of approximately 500,000 pounds, was a substantial undertaking and required the excavation of a foundation so that the table could be properly positioned. As originally designed, the spaces between the rails of the transfer table were left open, thus leaving a gap between the rails through which objects could fall to the floor several feet below. However, at the time of installation, ...

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