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CLARK v. NATIONAL EQUIP. DESIGN CO.

November 4, 1994

WILLCERIOUS WILLIS and DENNIS CLARK, h/w
v.
NATIONAL EQUIPMENT DESIGN CO., TIFCO, INC., and RELIANCE ELECTRIC, INC. v. NABISCO BRAND, INC.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. WILLIAM DITTER, JR.

 Ditter, J.

 November 4, 1994

 This case involves the responsibility of those who manufacture to another's specifications parts of an allegedly defective system, where plaintiff was injured by a completely different component manufactured by someone else. It comes before me on defendants' motions for summary judgment and arises out of injuries allegedly sustained by plaintiff, Willcerious Willis, at her place of employment. Defendant, Tifco, argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because its product did not cause Ms. Willis' accident, its product was not itself defective, and Tifco did not design or assemble the allegedly defective system of which its product was a component. Reliance, the other defendant, argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because there is no theory of liability by which it can be liable as the manufacturer of a generic, non-dangerous component part installed in the system by someone else. For the reasons stated below, both defendants' motions will be granted.

 I. FACTS

 Plaintiff, Willcerious Willis, alleges that she was injured while working at a bakery facility in Philadelphia owned by Nabisco Brand, Inc. Ms. Willis worked on the cracker line at the bakery. She alleges that she was severely injured when her left breast and chest muscles were caught in and pulled between two rollers on a conveyor belt as she reached across the conveyor to clear a cracker jam.

 The conveyor system consisted of two conveyors, one upper and one lower. *fn1" Packaged crackers moved along both conveyors, with crackers from the upper conveyor descending onto the lower conveyor at an area known as a transfer point. It is clear that Ms. Willis was injured by the upper conveyor component of the conveyor system. Plaintiff and her husband sued Nedco and Tifco on theories of strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty, alleging that the defendants manufactured and assembled the components that were incorporated into the conveyor system. Plaintiffs also sued Reliance on the same theories, alleging that its motor powered the conveyor system. Claims against Nedco were dismissed without prejudice. *fn2" Both Tifco and Reliance have moved for summary judgment. All parties agree that Pennsylvania law governs this diversity case.

 II. TIFCO'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

 Tifco argues that its component, the lower conveyor, was neither defective nor the cause of Ms. Willis' accident. Moreover, Tifco maintains, it did not design or install the conveyor system into which its component was incorporated. Therefore, Tifco claims, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

 It is important to differentiate between what Tifco provided to Nabisco and where Ms. Willis was injured. Although plaintiff alleged in her complaint that Tifco had manufactured both the upper and lower conveyors, discovery has revealed that Tifco manufactured only the lower conveyor. Plaintiff does not contest this fact. *fn3"

 The upper conveyor consisted of a fabric belt with rollers at either end that provided tension and belt movement. Although it was not present at the time of his inspection, plaintiff's expert opined that there had been a snub roller at the discharge end of the conveyor belt. A snub roller increases the tension on the belt and keeps the belt on the main roller. The snub roller and the discharge roller together created a "running nip point," a place where an object could be caught between them, and a place where there should have been a guard. It was here that plaintiff was injured. The manufacturer of the upper conveyor portion of the conveyor system is unknown.

 Tifco's conveyor (the lower component), on the other hand, is a tabletop, chain conveyor, a flat surf ace chain held together by hinges and driven by a sprocket. (Dep. of Donald Hinkle, p. 71). Mr. Hinkle, a former Tifco employee, stated that the tabletop conveyor manufactured by Tifco for Nabisco had no discharge rollers or snub rollers, that chain conveyors in general do not use rollers at all, and that rollers are used only on belt conveyors. (Id., pp. 80, 81).

 In his original report, plaintiff's expert, Paul R. Stephens, stated that the cause of Ms. Willis' accident was Tifco's failure to comply with OSHA standards requiring nip points to be guarded and emergency stop controls to be provided. Once it became clear that Tifco had not manufactured the upper belt conveyor which had the rollers and unguarded nip point, but had manufactured only the lower conveyor which was not alleged or opined to have ensnared Ms. Willis, Mr. Stephens revised his opinion. Plaintiff's expert now states that Tifco created the transfer point that required Ms. Willis to reach below the upper conveyor to clear jammed product. He asserts that Tifco created the dangerous conveyor system -- unsafe because of the transfer point with the unguarded nip point -- by providing the lower conveyor which, when installed in close proximity to the upper conveyor in accordance with Nabisco's drawings, created the dangerous transfer point, which caused Ms. Willis to reach under the upper conveyor to clear the jam, which ultimately caused her to be pulled into the rollers of the upper conveyor. (Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J., ex. 5 (letter of Dec. 20, 1993)).

 A. Strict Liability

 Plaintiff's theory is that the proximity of the two conveyors created a dangerous transfer point that rendered the conveyor system defective, and that Tifco is responsible for three reasons: (1) because it defectively designed the conveyor system with an unguarded transfer point; (2) because it failed to warn of the danger, and (3) because its conveyor lacked OSHA-specified safety features. I find that the evidence shows that Tifco did not design the conveyor system, had no reason to know and therefore warn that there might be hazards associated with the system, and that it complied with applicable OSHA requirements.

 Plaintiff's theory of defect -- that Tifco either created the defective transfer point or that Tifco knew of the defect but failed to provide a warning -- is similar to that urged on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Wenrick v. Schloemann Siemag, A.G.. 523 Pa. 1, 564 A.2d 1244, 1246 (Pa. 1989). In Wenrick, plaintiff's decedent was killed while repairing an extrusion press when he was crushed by a retracting billet loader after the control switch for the loader was inadvertently triggered. The unguarded switch, designed by Cutler-Hammer, Inc., as part of an electrical control system, was positioned next to a pair of steps and was activated by a worker descending the steps. Id. Plaintiff's expert said that the defect was the unguarded condition of the switch and the location of the switch in close proximity to the steps. Id. Plaintiff argued that because Cutler-Hammer, using sequence diagrams and descriptions supplied by another defendant, participated in the design of the press, it must have been involved in positioning the switch. Id. at 1246-47. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that such an inference was unreasonable: none of the diagrams supplied to Cutler-Hammer contained indications of dimensions or the layout of the completed ...


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