On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.
[95 NJ Page 264] Under the current state of our law in the strict liability context, contributory negligence in any of its varied forms (excluding, of course, any intentional or willful act) will not foreclose a factory worker who is injured while using a defective machine for a reasonably foreseeable purpose from recovering against the machine's manufacturer. Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Mach. Co., 81 N.J. 150, 177 (1979). Nor may such negligence of the worker serve to reduce any award in his favor under principles of comparative negligence, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1. See Suter, supra, 81 N.J. at 177. The question posed by this appeal is whether a factory worker's contributory fault*fn1 may be similarly disregarded in an action grounded solely in negligence.
The Appellate Division, in an unreported opinion, held that in the stated circumstances the worker's contributory fault was available to the machine manufacturer as a defense. We disagree. Because it found error, however, on a point we do not reach, the court below remanded the cause for a new trial on liability. We reverse and order judgment for plaintiff on the liability phase of this bifurcated case.
Plaintiff John Green*fn2 brought suit on account of personal injuries sustained in January, 1977, while he was employed by Merlin Manufacturing Corporation (Merlin). He had been working for Merlin intermittently for about a year as a foreman, supervisor, and set-up man. On the date in question Green was working on a plastic blowmolding machine that, as the jury found, had originally been designed and assembled by defendant Transogram Co., Inc. (Transogram), for its own use but was subsequently acquired by Merlin after a bankruptcy sale of defendant's machines. The other named defendants are no longer involved in the case.
The blowmolding machine was used for the manufacture of plastic toys. It consisted of three separate components connected electrically and hydraulically: a tube called an extruder, used to heat plastic pellets and melt them down into a tube-like shape; a blow press, used to mold the plastic tube into the configuration of the toy mold; and a hydraulic system and
timing mechanism, used to supply power to and coordinate the operations of the other two parts. A button on the left side of the press mechanism shut off the power. The machine was not equipped with an interlocking guard, available at the time of manufacture, that would have prevented workers from placing their hands in the press area while the machine was in operation, nor did it bear any warnings about the danger of reaching between the presses while the power was on.
In the operation of a blowmolding machine the "set-up man" inserts a hollow mold of a particular shape and size between the two presses, one half on the inside wall of each press. Plastic pellets are then poured into the top of the extruder. The extruder heats the plastic, melts it down, and ejects it through the bottom in the form of a hot plastic tube or "parison." As the parison descends from the extruder into the area between the two die presses, the presses automatically clamp together on it at a force of 2,000 pounds per square inch, or a total closing force of 20 tons. This forces the parison into the mold between the presses. Hot air is then injected into the parison through a needle alongside one of the presses, and the plastic is blown up to the configuration of the mold. Finally, the plates separate, allowing the "machine operator" to remove the completed toy from the mold. As we understand the plaintiff's testimony this entire heating, melting, and molding process takes about sixteen to twenty seconds.
Blowmolding machines do not always work as smoothly as the foregoing description might suggest, however. Dribbles of plastic from the parison occasionally become caught on the alignment pins alongside the molds or elsewhere inside the die presses. At such times, as part of the normal operation of the machine, the machine operator must reach between the die presses to unjam the machine so that the operation can be completed.
At the time of the accident plaintiff, a 37-year-old man with a ninth-grade education who had been ...