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Ruvolo v. United States Steel Corp.

Decided: January 12, 1976.


Brody, J.J.D.R.C., Temporarily Assigned.


Plaintiff Onfrio Ruvolo was injured in the course of his employment when a wire he was tying around a carton snapped and entered his eye. He was tying cartons with the aid of a machine that tightened, knotted and cut the wire after he manually draped it around the carton. The accident occurred because the machine tightened the wire beyond its tensile strength.

Defendant and third-party plaintiff United States Steel Corporation (Steel) had manufactured the machine and leased it to plaintiff's employer, third-party defendant

Supermarkets General Corporation (Supermarkets). The liability issues were tried to a jury which rendered a special verdict. At hand is the task of molding a judgment within the law of the case established in an opinion reported at 133 N.J. Super. 362 wherein the third-party claim for indemnification was preserved from summary dismissal. Supermarkets, now armed with the special verdict, renews its argument that the third-party action is barred by provisions of the Workmen's Compensation Act. N.J.S.A. 34:15-8.

I find the following facts, determined in critical part by the jury's answers to written questions. R. 4:39-1. Supermarkets leased the machine under an oral agreement with Steel and used it to tie cartons of meat and meat trimmings at its Woodbridge food distribution center supplying Pathmark retail stores in the area. The agreement had no provision allocating responsibility in the event the machine caused an accident.

When the machine arrived in Woodbridge a representative of Steel explained its operation to Supermarkets' management personnel. This included an adequate warning that because of the wire-snapping hazard, employees should operate the machine only while wearing safety glasses. An explanation of the operation of the machine is necessary to understand the hazard.

The machine is fitted beneath the top of a table, under the side which the operator faces. To his left is a small, powerful vise-like gripper; to his right another gripper. Between the grippers, in line with them and just under a tongueshaped projection of the table top, is a horizontal slot containing the operative part of the tying device. The operator positions a carton before him on the table so that the tongue is under the carton where the wire is to be knotted. He unreels a length of wire from a spool on the floor to his left, threads the wire through the left open gripper, slips it sideways into the slot under the tongue, pulls it around the carton in a counter-clockwise direction, reinserts it in the slot and threads it through the right open gripper. The carton

and tongue are now loosely encircled by the wire. Steadying the carton with his left hand, the operator activates the machine by depressing a lever with his right hand. The grippers clamp the wire. The right gripper moves to the right thereby tightening the wire around the carton and tongue. The tying device then twists the two strands of wire in the slot into a knot and cuts the wire, freeing the now tied carton which the operator removes from the table by pulling it toward him off the tongue. Upon the lever's being depressed, the machine performs the entire operation in an almost instantaneous burst.

The wire-snapping hazard is caused by the right gripper's moving forcefully a fixed distance to the right without regard to the wire's resistance. Thus, if the operator leaves too little slack in draping the wire around the carton, the gripper may pull the wire so tight as to snap it.

An operator's eye is uniquely vulnerable to serious injury from a wire flailing after a snap. Given the adequate warning as found by the jury, Supermarkets was negligent in failing to issue safety glasses to the plaintiff. The jury absolved Steel from negligence in the design of the machine and rejected as unfeasible plaintiff's only claim of defect: failure to install an awkward plastic shield and telescoping mechanical arm (to steady the carton during the tie) that would have to be manually positioned each time the machine is activated. The jury found, however, that a proximate cause of the accident was Steel's negligent failure to attach to the machine a suitable notice warning the operator of the necessity to wear safety glasses. I dismissed the defense of contributory negligence as legally unavailable because of the manufacturer's duty to guard against injury caused by the operator's reasonably foreseeable negligence. Bexiga v. Havir Mfg. Corp. , 60 N.J. 402, 412 (1972).

In sum, the accident was proximately caused by both the negligent failure of Steel to warn plaintiff with a suitable notice on its machine of the necessity to wear safety glasses and the negligent ...

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