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Cepeda v. Cumberland Engineering Co.

Decided: January 5, 1976.

JOSE FRANCISCO CEPEDA, AN INFANT, BY HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM VICTORIA CEPEDA AND VICTORIA CEPEDA, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
CUMBERLAND ENGINEERING COMPANY, INC., A CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Matthews, Lora and Morgan.

Per Curiam

[138 NJSuper Page 346] This is a products liability case.

Defendant Cumberland Engineering Company, Inc. (Cumberland), appeals from a judgment entered upon a jury verdict awarding plaintiffs damages in the amount of $125,000. Defendant contends that the trial judge erroneously denied its motion for judgment at the end of plaintiffs' case and its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Alternatively, it contends that it is entitled to a new trial because of an incorrect evidentiary ruling, erroneous rejection of several requests to charge, inconsistency between two of the answers given by the jury in connection with its special verdict, and on the ground that the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

On April 3, 1968 plaintiff Jose Cepeda, suffered an accident in the course of his employment with Rotuba Extruders, Inc. which resulted in the amputation of four fingers of his left hand. The accident occurred while plaintiff was operating a piece of equipment, known as a pelletizer, which had been designed and manufactured in 1956 by defendant and sold to Rotuba. As described by several of the witnesses, the pelletizer is a machine designed to accept thin strips of plastic from an extruder and cut them into small pellets by means of rollers which pull the strips into revolving blades which do the actual cutting. As designed by defendant, the roller area was protected by a guard, affixed to the machine by four bolts, supplied by the manufacturer to avoid accidental injury to the operator by preventing contact between the operator's body and the rollers and blades. Although designed to be affixed to the pelletizer during normal operations, the guard was removable, through use of a wrench applied to the bolts, so that the machine could be serviced and cleaned. There was no dispute but that plaintiff's accident would not have occurred had the guard been in place at the time.

Plaintiff had worked at the pelletizing machine for a period of eight months prior to the accident. At no time before the morning of the accident did he operate the equipment without the guard. Although he professed ignorance as to the nature of the guard despite his extended experience

with the equipment, his supervisor testified that he was instructed never to remove it. Plaintiff denied he received this instruction. The accident occurred, after three hours of continuous use without the guard, when plaintiff's hand was caught in a ribbon of plastic and uncontrollably drawn into the unguarded rollers.

Eugene Drood, vice-president of Rotuba Extruders and plant manager at the time of the accident, testified that there were three different operations which necessitated removal of the guard: first, loose particles occasionally became lodged in the machine and the guard had to be removed in order to reach them; second, when changing the colors of plastic it was essential that all residual color from the preceding run be removed, and to do that removal of the guard was essential; third, the strips of plastic do occasionally clog the machine and the guard must be removed in order to untangle and unclog the interior mechanism. Although there was some dispute as to the frequency with which the guard had to be removed during its operational functions as distinguished from maintenance of the equipment itself, the evidence clearly supports plaintiff's contention that occasions did arise necessitating its removal during normal operations. There was no dispute, however, that whenever the guard required removal for whatever cause, proper procedure required the machine to be deactivated and not to be again put into operation until the guard was replaced.

Plaintiffs, through their expert, Isaac Stewart, admitted that the guard was fully sufficient to have prevented plaintiff's accident had it been in place at the time it occurred; that it was not defectively designed, and that it not only insured the operator's safety but aided in the efficient functioning of the equipment by serving to guide the plastic ribbons into the rollers. The alleged design defect in the pelletizer upon which plaintiff predicated his claim was the absence of a so-called "interlock," a device which would have deactivated the machine whenever the guard was removed. According to Stewart, in view of the removable nature of the

guard and the necessity for its removal during normal operation for cleaning and unclogging the equipment, proper safety design dictated incorporation of such a device to foreclose possible operation without the guard in place. His opinion was given without reference to industry standards prevailing at the time the equipment was designed, manufactured and sold. Uncontradicted evidence from the defendant disclosed, however, that competing manufacturers utilizing a fixed guard similar to the one used on the Cumberland Pelletizer did not employ an interlock at the time this equipment was designed and sold.*fn1

Defendant's expert denied the necessity for an interlock on a fixed guard, bolted to the machine.*fn2 ...


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