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Michalko v. Cooke Color and Chemical Corp.

Decided: August 16, 1982.

ELEANOR J. MICHALKO AND PAUL MICHALKO, HER HUSBAND, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
COOKE COLOR AND CHEMICAL CORP. A/K/A COOKE DIVISION OF REICHOLD CHEMICALS CORP., SQUARE D COMPANY, AND E DISTRIBUTION COMPANY (FICTITIOUS NAME), DEFENDANTS, AND CUBBY MANUFACTURING COMPANY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Pashman, Schreiber, Handler and O'Hern. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.

Handler

This case presents the question whether an independent contractor that rebuilds part of a machine according to the specifications of the owner can be held strictly liable for injuries sustained by a foreseeable user of the machine when the contractor failed to make the machine safe or to warn of the dangers inherent in its use. The courts below found that such a contractor could not be held strictly liable. We now reverse.

I

Since 1972, plaintiff Eleanor J. Michalko worked as a "molder" for Elastimold in Hackettstown, making airport lighting transformers. Her job consisted of operating a 35-ton vertical transfer or transformer press, soldering wires to coils or cable transformers, and then placing the coils with two small rubber strips in a stationary mold or die positioned on two clamps. The clamps would then be shut by pushing a button on the electric control panel to the right of the operator's station. Once the clamps were closed, rubber strips about five to seven inches long were heated and folded into the injection cavities above and below the stationary die. Upon pressing the injection button on the control panel, the rubber was injected around the coil, and the rams and cylinders would approach the stationary die from the top and bottom. Because the folded rubber sometimes fell

out of the machine, plaintiff had been instructed by her employer to hold the rubber in place with her left hand while she pushed the button with her right. On the evening of December 10, 1973, plaintiff was working on press # 7, observing the normal production procedures and following her employer's instructions. She held the rubber in the cavity with her left hand as usual, as she pressed the injection button with her right. Her left hand got caught between the stationary die and the bottom injection cavity and was amputated. There were no safety devices on the transfer press to prevent the injury.

Elastimold owned four such transfer presses, three of which were originally built by Elastimold's parent company. These were known as presses # 6, 7 and 8. The fourth machine, press # 9, was built by the defendant, Cubby Manufacturing Company (hereinafter "Cubby"), in 1968 in accordance with Elastimold's plans and specifications. Cubby workers had done approximately two dozen jobs for Elastimold since the mid-1960's and had knowledge of the type of work that the transfer presses performed in the manufacturing process.

In 1969 the engineering department at Elastimold drew up plans to rebuild and redesign the three older presses. Elastimold sent Cubby a purchase order, containing a clause requiring Cubby to conform to Elastimold's drawings and specifications. Cubby picked up the machines from Elastimold's plant and transported them to Cubby's shop in Fairfield, New Jersey. The only item left behind at Elastimold after Cubby removed the presses was the old hydraulic system, which was then scrapped. Cubby disassembled each machine. Three of four horizontal plates for the press frame and supporting ties or strain rods from each of the three presses were remachined and reused. Cubby installed eight hydraulic cylinders with accompanying valves, seals, and other paraphernalia. It manufactured a manifold and other parts, and it modified the length of the rams or pistons.

Cubby was aware of the types of safety devices that could be used on the transfer presses. However, it had a policy of not questioning the absence of safety guards when it was not building a complete machine. Cubby knew that assembly drawings usually showed the machine as a finished product ready to operate and that, in this case, the drawings furnished to it by Elastimold did not indicate any safety devices. Even though Cubby's personnel had visited Elastimold and seen the presses operating without safety devices, Cubby assumed that Elastimold would install safety devices itself. It is undisputed that Cubby knew the transfer presses were dangerous without safety devices.

The work performed by Cubby conformed to Elastimold's specifications, which, as noted, did not include provision for a safety device. Moreover, Cubby failed to warn Elastimold or otherwise to convey or affix warnings to foreseeable users that the press was dangerous without a safety device. When the presses were shipped back to Elastimold, they were not operational since Elastimold had decided to install the electrical and hydraulic systems, including the electrical control panel itself. These systems served to give power to the press to make it function. Neither Cubby nor Elastimold installed any safety devices on the presses.*fn1

Plaintiffs Eleanor Michalko and Paul Michalko filed this action against Cubby, Square D Co., the alleged manufacturer of the control panel, and Cooke Color and Chemical Corp., the supplier of the rubber inserted in the machine. The complaint alleged negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties on the part of the defendants. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the action against all of the defendants but Cubby.

At the close of the evidence at trial, the trial court dismissed the action against Cubby with prejudice. The trial judge ruled that (1) there was no "sale;" (2) the addition of the hydraulic and electrical systems constituted a "substantial change" in the product, relieving Cubby of liability; (3) Cubby did not design the machine but produced it according to the exact specifications of the employer; (4) it was impractical to install a safety device since different uses of the machine required different devices; and (5) an independent contractor has no duty to warn a knowledgeable buyer that a machine is dangerously designed. The Appellate Division affirmed for substantially the reasons expressed by the trial court. We granted plaintiffs' petition for certification. 88 N.J. 476 (1981).

II

The major issue in this case is whether an independent contractor that undertakes to rebuild part of a machine in accordance with the specifications of the owner has a legal duty to foreseeable users of the machine to make the ...


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