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McLaughlin v. Fellows Gear Shaper Co.

March 24, 1986

WILBUR R. MCLAUGHLIN AND BETTY MCLAUGHLIN, HIS WIFE,
v.
THE FELLOWS GEAR SHAPER COMPANY; HERMANN PFAUTER, APPELLANTS



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Civil Action No. 83-3513.

Author: Mansmann

Before: Adams, Sloviter and Mansmann, Circuit Judges.

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

I.

This is a Pennsylvania diversity action in which plaintiffs were successful in recovering damages under the strict liability theory of Section 402A of the Restatement of Torts for personal injury caused by defectively designed machinery. On appeal, defendants have raised several trial errors, chiefly, that the district court erred in resubmitting the foreseeability issue to the jury and in sua sponte setting aside the jury's finding of assumption of the risk. Finding no merit in any of the allegations raised, we affirm.

II.

This product liability action arose from an accident in which Wilbur McLaughlin suffered the amputation of his left thumb when he was preparing a Gear Hobbing Machine for use. The particular machine McLaughlin was preparing was a Pfauter Model P-900 hobber, manufactured by defendant Hermann Pfauter and sold to McLaughlin's employer by defendant Fellows Gear Shaper Company (Fellows).*fn1

A hobbing machine is a milling machine used to cut teeth into cylindrical steel pieces which will become gears. The machine involved is designed for automatic, high-speed operation. It is equipped with adequate pinchpoint guarding during automatic operation. Before actually operating the machine, however, the worker must prepare or "set-up" the machine by making certain adjustments to the machine to ensure that the correct size gear is produced. Because precise adjustments are required, it is necessary for the worker to have access to the dangerous cutting surface area. The "set-up" procedure also involves jogging the machine manually, that is, causing the machine to rotate briefly. During the "set-up" operation the machine is in the manual mode.

It was while McLaughlin was engaged in jogging the machine in the course of carrying out the "set-up" operations that the accident occurred. McLaughlin was balancing in a half-crouch position on top of the machine, setting up the machine, and was using his left hand for balance and support. When he lowered the "collar" of the machine to the workpiece, the machine cut off the thumb on his left hand.

The plaintiffs' theory at trial was that the Pfauter gear hobber was defective and unsafe since it did not have an automatic interlock or two-handed control switch which could be used during the manually operated "set-up" procedure. Defendants presented a two-pronged defense: first, defendants maintained that the machine was not defective because an automatic interlock was not necessary during the "set-up" stage when the machine was being operated manually and second, the defendants argued that McLaughlin had assumed the risk.

At the conclusion of the evidence the district court submitted five interrogatories to the jury covering the issues of the case. The interrogatories and the jury's answers were as follows:

1. When the hobbing machine was delivered to LinkBelt (now P.T. Components), was it in a defective condition rendering it unsafe for its intended use?

Yes X No

2. If so, was the defective condition of the hobbing machine a proximate cause of the accident and plaintiff's injury?

Yes X No

3. Was it foreseeable to the manufacturer that operators would, on occasion, stand on the machine while carrying out the setting-up process?

Yes No X

4. Did plaintiff assume the risk?

Yes X No

5. (To be completed only if your verdict is in favor of plaintiffs.)

We, the jury, award damages as follows:

Mr. McLaughlin $100,000

Mrs. McLaughlin $20,000

Upon learning the jury's answers, defendants moved for entry of judgment in their favor, and plaintiffs moved for a mistrial. The district court denied both requests. Instead, the court submitted two additional questions to the jury to clarify the foreseeability question, in particular, to determine the effect of McLaughlin's standing on the machine during the time it was being set up for operation. The supplemental interrogatories and answers were as follows:

3(a) Was the fact that plaintiff stood on the machine a substantial factor in causing the accident?

Yes No X

(b) Was it the sole cause of the accident?

Yes No X

After ascertaining that the jury was unanimous in its answers to these supplemental interrogatories, the district court asked the following questions of the jury in open court and received the following responses:

THE COURT: Finally, members of the jury, by the answers that you have given, is it your intention to find in favor of the plaintiffs or in favor of the defendants? Can somebody state what you have in mind?

[THE FOREPERSON] Plaintiff.

THE COURT: You all agree you intend to find in favor of the plaintiffs in ...


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