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Finnegan v. Havir Manufacturing Corp.

Decided: April 24, 1972.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Mountain. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Proctor, J.


This is a products liability case. Plaintiff Harry Finnegan was injured when his right hand was crushed by the ram of a power punch press he was operating for his employer, Arrow Metal Products (Arrow). Finnegan and his wife brought this suit for damages against Havir Manufacturing Corporation (Havir), as manufacturer, and Ralph Hochman & Co. and Wehrheim Machinery Co., as vendor and distributor of the punch press. The causes of action were grounded in negligence and strict liability. It was the plaintiffs' contention that the punch press was so dangerous in design that it should have been equipped with some form of safety device to protect the user while the machine was being operated. At the close of plaintiffs' case the three defendants moved for dismissal. The actions against Hochman and Wehrheim were dismissed by consent of counsel because there was no proof that they had sold or distributed the machine to Arrow. The motion by Havir was denied. At the end of the entire case Havir moved to dismiss and the trial court reserved decision and sent the case to the jury. Havir was found liable and Finnegan was awarded $28,555 and his wife $1,000. Thereafter Havir moved for judgment n.o.v. or a new trial. The trial court granted the motion for judgment n.o.v. Plaintiffs appealed to the Appellate Division and we certified the matter before argument there.

The punch press was manufactured by Havir in 1949 and sold that year to a hardware company in New York City. Subsequently, although the record does not disclose when or how, Arrow acquired the press. With the exception of a guard over the flywheel there were no safety devices of any kind on the machine when it was manufactured and shipped.

The press is a hand-fed machine of the single cycle type, As originally manufactured and sold it was activated by a

foot pedal which engages the clutch which in turn engages the ram and starts the machine in motion, causing the ram to descend forcibly upon a piece of metal which has been placed on a die. At the end of each cycle or operation the ram ascends to a position of rest.

In March, 1966 Finnegan had been employed by Arrow at Haskell, New Jersey, for about two months, working nights. During his employment he operated various machines. On March 11, 1966, Finnegan reported to work at 4:30 P.M. and was assigned to various jobs in the plant. At about 10:00 or 10:30 that evening his foreman assigned him to work on the Havir punch press. Finnegan testified that he had never before operated a punch press. He said that the foreman demonstrated what he was to do, watched him operate the press two or three times and said, "all right" and left.

Finnegan was directed to deburr aluminum discs about 4" x 6" x 1/8" thick. He said he sat in front of the machine, took a disc from a box on the right, placed it with his right hand on the die and stepped on a foot pedal which activated the machine. The ram would come down about two inches, stamping the disc and removing burrs from around the circumference. After this operation the ram would ascend and Finnegan would remove the disc with his left hand and place it in a box to his left. He estimated that he stamped six or eight pieces a minute during the time he operated the press. At about midnight his right hand was caught between the ram and die, resulting in the later amputation of two fingers and damage to a third. Finnegan was not clear as to what stage of the operation he was performing when the accident occurred.

John Salice, the foreman, testified in behalf of plaintiffs. He said that after demonstrating the use of the machine he told Finnegan, "I will be right back" and left. He said he went to get long pliers or tongs so that Finnegan would not have to put his hands under the ram. Although in a pretrial deposition the foreman had stated that he told Finnegan

he was going for the tongs and instructed him to wait until he returned, at the trial he was unsure whether or not he actually said those things to Finnegan.

Salice further testified that sometime after Finnegan's injury Arrow installed a two-hand push-button safety device which necessitates the placement of each of the operator's hands on buttons away from the die area in order to activate the machine. He said that this procedure "considerably" slows up work.

Plaintiffs' expert, Harold Nickelsporn, a consulting engineer, testified that the machine had no safety devices when it was manufactured and none were installed before the accident. He said that prior to the accident the mechanical foot pedal which was installed by the manufacturer and was depressed to activate the machine had been replaced by an electrical foot pedal. In his opinion the accident was caused by a lack of coordination in tripping the foot pedal, together with the dangerous character of the machine, i.e., the absence of safety devices to prevent the operator from placing his hands beneath the ram when the press is activated. He said the press deviated from manufacturer's standards of safety in 1949 because it was made without safety devices or without warnings to the operator posted on the machine.

Nickelsporn stated that there were several safety devices available in 1949. He described two types. One was the push-button device which has two buttons so spaced as to require the operator to place each hand on a button away from the die area to set the machine in motion. He said that installation by the manufacturer of such a device would be a simple operation, and not a costly one. The other guard was a sweep device ...

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