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Huels v. General Electric Co.

Decided: April 12, 1946.

HERBERT HUELS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from the Second District Court of Jersey City.

For the appellant, Hopkins, Vorburger & Dickson (Herman G. Vorburger, of counsel).

For the appellee, Abraham Warren (Andrew O. Wittreich, of counsel).

Before Justices Bodine and Perskie.

Perskie

The opinion of the court was delivered by

PERSKIE, J. We are concerned in this case with the master's liability for the alleged breach of its duty to provide its servant with equipment, ingredients and tools which are reasonably safe and fit for the purpose to which they are to be applied.

This is a common law action. The servant, Herbert Huels, sued his master, General Electric Company, a corporation, to recover damages for the injuries which he allegedly sustained to his hands while engaged in the performance of his regular work on a degreasing tank belonging to his master. The master's liability was bottomed upon the premise that it had failed to discharge its common law duty, the "underlying obligation" of which is "the use of reasonable care." Cf. Tompkins v. Marine Engine and Machine Co., 70 N.J.L. 330, 332; 58 A. 393.

From the record as submitted, we ascertain that the master was engaged in the business of manufacturing electrical products and appliances. In the process of manufacturing these products and appliances it became necessary that some of them be degreased. For that purpose, the master provided a degreasing tank. No purpose will be served in detailing the construction of the tank. For the safety of it, as such, is not in issue. It should suffice briefly to state how the tank is operated. A solvent known as triclorethylene is poured in the bottom of the tank over which there is a steel grating. The tank is encircled by a water jacket about one and one-half feet from the top. The solvent is vaporized by gas heaters underneath the tank. The vapor rises to the water jacket which condenses the vapor and thus keeps it from flowing out of the tank. The larger products to be degreased are placed in the tank and the smaller ones in a wire basket. Both are lowered into and raised from the vapor in the tank by metal hooks. When removed they are free from grease, and are practically dry but hot.

The master caused the servant to be instructed as to how to lower the products into the tank with the hooks and basket for the purpose of degreasing and how to raise them out from the tank. About November 1st, 1941, six weeks after he had been doing other work for his master, the servant began to work on the tank and continued so to work until May, 1942. In doing his work his hands came into contact with the triclorethylene which he alleges the master knew was dangerous, harmful and injurious to him. Ergo, the master breached its common law duty.

From the agreed state of case (R.S. 2:32-209) we ascertain that the master denied liability on the grounds that there was no proof that it had failed to supply proper appliances, that the liquid was, to its knowledge, dangerous and that it was free from actionable negligence, that the servant assumed the risk of his employment, and was guilty of contributory

negligence in not using the hooks and appliances provided by it. The parties submitted their respective proofs.

The master's motions for a nonsuit and for a directed verdict, based upon the stated defenses, were denied. The trial judge, who sat without a jury, entered a judgment of $500 and costs in favor of ...


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