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Fisher v. Clark Aiken Matik

January 18, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Vanaskie



Defendant Marquip, Inc., has moved in limine to preclude the testimony of Joby G. Williamson, an expert in automated machinery controls retained by Plaintiff in this wrongful death products liability action.*fn1 As set forth in this Court's Memorandum opinion of September 26, 2005, the factual background for this action is as follows:

In this case, the product of concern is a complicated piece of machinery used by the International Paper Company at its plant located in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Specifically, involved in this accident was a paper "splicer" designed and manufactured by Defendant Marquip, Inc., and incorporated into a "sheeter" machine designed and manufactured by co-Defendant Will-Pemco, Inc., successor-in-interest to Clark Aiken Matik, Inc.

The sheeter line operated at the International Paper plant starts with very large rolls of heavy paper as raw material. The paper rolls are unspooled, and the sheeter line ultimately cuts the heavy paper to the desired length and stacks the cut paper. There are two pairs of roll stands that unspool the paper rolls, and each pair of roll stands is capable of feeding one roll of paper at a time to the sheeter line. A Marquip splicer is located above each pair of roll stands. The purpose of the Marquip splicer is to allow the sheeter line to run continuously by eliminating the need to stop the sheeter to allow for re-threading the paper each time a roll of raw material paper has been exhausted.

The splicer includes an element referred to as the "dancer roller," which is intended to move along the splicer in accordance with the size of the roll of paper being processed. Movement of the dancer roller is enabled by a sensor called a "potentiometer." The potentiometer is connected to the dancer system by a chain located in the "dancer track area."

The chain interacts with the potentiometer. The dancer system itself is connected to air cylinders by cables. The air cylinders provide the force that moves the dancer roller.

The Marquip splicer is an integral component of the sheeter machine. It enables the equipment to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sheeter itself is a unique machine, specifically designed and manufactured for use by International Paper at its Hazleton plant.

On June 14, 1999, Bradley Fisher, a maintenance mechanic who had worked for International Paper for about 10 years, sustained fatal injuries in an accident involving the sheeter/splicer. The accident occurred while Fisher, with the assistance of Emil Kitlan, was attempting to dislodge a broken potentiometer chain. Kitlan, in response to an inquiry from International Paper employee Ray Adams, indicated that it was unnecessary to shut down the machinery.*fn2

Fisher climbed onto a paper roll stand, the top of which was approximately 3 feet above the ground, to dislodge and remove the chain. Kitlan climbed onto a catwalk above Fisher and the Marquip splicer. In order to dislodge the chain, Mr. Fisher removed a guard that covered a sprocket. Mr. Fisher was feeding the chain to Mr. Kitlan, who was standing above him. Prior to completely removing the chain, Mr. Fisher told Mr. Kitlan to stop pulling on the chain. An instant later, Mr. Kitlan "heard something let go," and out of the corner of his eye saw the dancer roller spring forward towards Mr. Fisher. The dancer roller pinned Mr. Fisher's head against one of the stationary rolls, crushing his skull and causing fatal injuries.

Plaintiff claims that the sheeter/splicer was defective because of the absence of adequate warnings about the potential for sudden movement of the dancer roller if the machinery is not placed in a "zero energy state." Plaintiff also contends that the product was defective because entry into the machinery did not trigger an automatic shut down process. (Memorandum Opinion of September 26, 2005, Dkt. Entry 262, at 2-4.)

Essential to the automated operation of this complex machinery is the Siemens Programable Logic Control ("PLC"). The Siemens PLC effectively controls the movement of the Marquip dancer roller in the splicing operation. Plaintiff's proposed expert, Joby Williamson, explained the operation of the Siemens PLC as follows:

[T]he Siemens PLC controls the pressure feeding the dancer cylinders to force the dancer into the extended position with maximum pressure. The PLC monitors the position of the dancer using feedback from the dancer potentiometer. A potentiometer is a feedback device that has a shaft that can be rotated. As the shaft is rotated the potentiometer sends a signal indicating the rotary position of the shaft. In the Marquip slicer, the potentiometer shaft is connected to a sprocket. This sprocket is rotated by a chain connected to the dancer. Thus, by monitoring the signal from the potentiometer, the Siemens PLC can determine the position of the dancer. When the dancer is close to the home position the PLC increases the signal to the pressure controller to maximize air pressure to the dancer cylinder, thus maximizing force applied to the dancer. (Williamson Report of January 10, 2003 at 2.)

Based upon evidence produced during discovery, Mr. Williamson described the sequence of events resulting in the fatal mishap. (Id. at 3.) According to Williamson, the dancer roller should have returned to its home position after completing a splice, but was stopped in its travel. Both the web of paper being fed into the sheeter and the potentiometer chain were observed to be broken. In attempting to remedy the problem, Mr. Fisher, a maintenance ...

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