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ATKINS v. BLAW KNOX FOUNDRY & MILL MACH.

January 21, 1980

ROMA ATKINS, Plaintiff
v.
BLAW KNOX FOUNDRY AND MILL MACHINERY, INC., Defendant and Third Party Plaintiff v. CRUCIBLE INCORPORATED DIVISION OF COLT INDUSTRIES, INC., Third Party Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SNYDER

In this products liability action, the jury found that a bar straightening machine without a feed-in table or detailed instructions for a feed-in table was in defective condition at the time of sale in 1942, that the purchaser of the machine negligently provided or maintained a feed-in table for use with the machine, and that both events were proximate causes of an accident to Roma Atkins on August 9, 1974, when a steel bar apparently worked its way out of the feed-in table and struck Atkins. After answering special interrogatories, *fn1" the jury awarded a verdict for the Plaintiff in the sum of $ 53,187.86. The manufacturer, Blaw Knox Foundry and Mill Machinery, Inc. (Blaw Knox), and the employer-purchaser, Crucible Incorporated, Division of Colt Industries, Inc. (Crucible), have moved for judgment n. o. v. or for a new trial.

Blaw Knox contends that the court must first decide as a matter of law whether a straightener sold without a feed-in table or a design therefor is unreasonably dangerous, and that the court, in the instant situation, should have rejected the Plaintiff's claim. It also urges that since the feed-in table would last only eight to ten years, and the accident happened 32 years after the sale of the straightener the Defendant Blaw Knox cannot be held liable for "not selling something that would have ceased to have been of use long before the accident and could not, therefore, have prevented it any way."

  Blaw Knox further urges that under the Plaintiff's expert testimony, there was "a high probability" that poor maintenance of the table contributed to the accident and that Plaintiff's expert could not state whether the accident would have happened if the table had been properly maintained. (R.Tr. 58) *fn2" It thus claims that Plaintiff has proved only that a bar could escape from the table in use when the table was in a worn and improperly maintained condition. Since maintenance was not the responsibility of Blaw Knox, Plaintiff has not proved a basis of liability as against Blaw Knox. Blaw Knox contends even more fundamentally that the Plaintiff failed to prove any defect had caused the accident, but proved only how the accident might have happened under its "defect in construction" theory.

 Crucible contends that Blaw Knox wholly failed to prove negligence in maintenance by Crucible. This, they say, arises particularly because Blaw Knox was unable to establish the condition of the table at the time of the accident (although pictures taken some two years later showed missing guards or "dogs") and the Plaintiff's expert was of the opinion that the accident still may have occurred even had all the dogs been intact and the table in perfect condition. Crucible also contends it made a table that followed the suggested design of the manufacturer and could not have been expected to do more.

 I.

 At the time of the accident, Roma Atkins, a forty-seven year old, experienced machine operator, was employed by Crucible, and on August 19, 1974 was operating an automatic straightening and polishing machine for steel bars. The steel bars, 9/16 of an inch in diameter and 22 feet long, are rolled from a stacking table onto a feed-in table designed to hold the bars in a long trough, level with the straightener, and are fed by hand to rollers which then pull the bar through. Atkins had passed one bar through the straightener and was passing the next bar through. He watched the bar enter the rolls and when about four feet of the bar had passed into the machine, he turned to his left to roll the next bar into the trough and was struck three or four times causing severe injuries to his right arm and other less serious injuries.

 The bar straightening machine was built by Medart Company, predecessor of Blaw Knox, and sold to the Defense Plant Corporation, which controlled the Crucible steel making facility in Midland, Pennsylvania during the war in 1942. The bar straightener, about which there are no complaints, was sold with a manual which stated as to a feed-in table:

 
"Unless otherwise specified, the customer must provide a feed-in table at the input end of the machine. It is advisable to make the table adjustable in height so the bar may always be fed in at the machine's center line. It is necessary to provide a loop or trough to hold small diameter bars as they enter the machine. This is true since the bars revolve at considerable speed as they feed through the machine, and since the curvature of the bar being straightened is irregular, it might otherwise start to whip excessively."

 The straightener had been in continuous operation since 1942, without accident, usually for two eight-hour shifts, five days a week. (The machine continued in use after the accident.) Crucible had moved the machine on three occasions before installing it in its present location in 1962. At the time of the accident, the straightener was being operated with a trough table, but it was not shown where the table came from, although it was clear that it was not supplied by Medart. The table was maintained by Crucible which from time to time replaced worn or broken parts with parts made in its own foundry.

 After analyzing the feed-in table in use, Dr. Romauldi concluded it did not provide a fail safe enclosure system. The whipping action of the bar could oscillate the balance dogs and thereby open them up, permitting the bar to escape. To the contrary of the design of the table in use, Dr. Romauldi referred to a Blaw Knox blueprint (Plaintiff's Exhibit 11), dated 1970, in which the dogs were reversed so that the whipping action of the bar would only tend to tighten the dogs instead of making it possible for the bar to work itself out. "The device on Plaintiff Exhibit 11, in my opinion, is a full closure." (R.Tr. 33) Dr. Romauldi testified there were no engineering principles involved in designing Plaintiff's Exhibit 11 which were not known in 1942. Thus, while Dr. Romauldi found the straightener itself to be quite adequate, it was his opinion that "a part of the machine was not supplied . . . . Essentially the trough is a functional and integral part of the machine, and it is not, in my opinion, a proper design to merely indicate that a trough must be supplied that prevents the bar from flailing around." (R.Tr. 37) In his opinion, the manufacturer should have indicated the direction of rotation, so that the clamps or guards could be designed to permit the dropping of the bar and provide complete enclosure of the bar subject to certain forces. "My issue here is kind of a straightforward one. It is a question of what constitutes an extension of a machine and what constitutes functionally an ancillary or auxiliary piece of equipment that might be optional. A trough is not optional." (R.Tr. 39)

 On the causation issue, Dr. Romauldi stated that poor maintenance of the feed-in table, particularly failing to replace missing guards, probably contributed to the bar coming out of the trough, by accentuating a "corkscrew effect." However, his conclusion was that if the feed-in table had the fail safe enclosure system, the remaining clamps would have prevented the bar from corkscrewing out of the trough. A portion of Dr. Romauldi's cross examination follows:

 
"Q Now, (aren't missing dogs) a dangerous and hazardous condition?
 
A Yes. That goes back to my earlier comments that the dogs could be moved over to come out, but that once the bar comes out and begins to violently whip, it will accentuate what I have said over here. I have said there were two tables here. The bar could have come out of the rear table and it would have been not a very pleasant thing because it would have been flailing around at the back of the table, but if the front table were so designed that the bars could not come out then although the bar may have flailed about and did some damage to the table and anyone standing near the rear table, the bars could not have come out of the front table and therefore the clattering would have been heard and the machine could have been shut off, but the action could not telegraph itself all the way down.
 
Earlier I mentioned this corkscrew effect, that once it comes out the action will corkscrew itself down until it came out the very end.
 
A Oh, certainly.
 
Q And we have dogs missing in this particular ...

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