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Johnson v. Salem Corp.

Decided: July 18, 1984.

ROBERT JOHNSON, JR., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
SALEM CORPORATION, SALEM FURNACE COMPANY, INC., HERRVOSS CORPORATION, AND SALEM BROUSIS, COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 189 N.J. Super. 50 (1983).

For modification and affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.

Handler

[97 NJ Page 82] This is a strict products liability case arising out of the injury to an operator of an industrial machine. The appeal presents several evidential and procedural issues. One issue involves the propriety of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (" n.o.v. ") entered by the trial court in favor of the plaintiff following a jury verdict of no cause for action. This issue requires our examination of the standards for evaluating evidence, particularly expert testimony, under the strict liability doctrine and determining when such evidence can fairly be characterized as sufficiently free from dispute to present only a

question of law. Another issue arises from the procedure followed in this case of permitting the jury to return a verdict of damages for plaintiff notwithstanding the jury's determination that defendants were not liable. This issue calls for consideration of whether the separation or bifurcation of jury deliberations on liability and damages respectively is appropriate and, if so, under what circumstances.

Following the trial court's judgment n.o.v. in favor of plaintiff in the amount of the jury's damages award, an appeal was taken by defendants. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's judgment on liability in favor of plaintiff but reversed the award of damages and remanded the matter for a trial on damages alone. 189 N.J. Super. 50 (App.Div.1983). We granted defendants' petition for certification, 94 N.J. 527 (1983). For the reasons given in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.

I

Plaintiff, Robert Johnson, Jr., suffered a crushing injury to his right hand while he was operating a scrap baling machine that had been manufactured in 1955 by defendants. The purpose of the scrap baling machine was to press long ribbons of metal scraps into a compact form for sale or reprocessing. The machine consisted of two horizontal rollers, which were positioned one above the other. The meeting point of the two rollers is called an in-running nip point. The operator threaded the metal ribbons through a ground level opening onto the bottom roller, called the mandril or arbor. When the machine was activated, the mandril rotated inward. Because it was positioned against the other roller, which weighed 1,000 pounds, the mandril's rotation caused the upper roller to rotate inward also.*fn1 This rotation would continuously draw in the strips or

ribbons of metal, which would then be pounded and compressed into compact form.

At the time of the accident, the machine was operated by forward and reverse buttons.*fn2 There was also a horizontal emergency stop bar, approximately one-and-one-half feet long, located in front of the machine immediately above the feeding area. At the start of the operation, the operator's hands would be in the nip area in order to attach the metal ribbons to the mandril. If the ribbons broke during the baling process, a frequent occurrence, the operator would again have to place his or her hands at the nip area to reattach the ribbons or tie the broken ribbons together.

The only way to stop the machine, so that the operator could safely put his or her hands in the nip area to attach or reattach the ribbons, was for the operator to depress the stop bar. The machine was supposed to remain stopped until the operator reactivated it by pushing the forward or reverse button. However, plaintiff offered uncontradicted testimony that the emergency stop bar had not been working properly for one-and-one-half years before the accident and that the machine would sometimes restart without the operator pressing the forward or reverse buttons. He also claimed that his employer had not corrected this problem despite his regular complaints to his foreman.

On the day of the accident, plaintiff was operating the machine when the metal ribbons broke off the mandril. He stopped the machine by depressing the stop bar with his left

arm. As he began to rethread the machine with his right hand, his left arm accidently slipped off the stop bar and the machine started up, catching his cotton work glove in the rotating mandril. His hand was pulled into the nip point and crushed between the rollers. Falling forward, plaintiff's head struck the stop bar and stopped the machine; a fellow worker pushed the reverse button so that his hand was discharged from the machine.

Both parties presented the testimony of experts to explain the hazards in the design and operation of the machine. As already mentioned, the trial court ultimately set aside the jury verdict of liability in favor of defendants based on its assessment of the testimony of the experts. It is, consequently, essential that this testimony be reviewed in detail.

Howarth, a mechanical engineer, testified as plaintiff's expert. He stated that

[w]hen this machine was designed and manufactured, it was not designed with prudent engineering and is not reasonably safe * * *. It placed the operator in a point of vulnerability which should not have occurred.

Howarth based his conclusion on several considerations. The manufacturer would have known that in the normal use of the machine, the operator's hands would have to be at the nip point at certain times. Also, scrap baling machines, like other power machinery, are subject to accidental start-up, which could occur from someone unintentionally starting the machine. Additionally, mechanical malfunction and interruptions or surges in the flow of electric power could also cause accidental start-up. Further, Howarth testified that there was no guard against accidental start-up on the scrap baling machine, although the concept of guarding in-running nip points was widely recognized in the 1950's and there were several different types of guards available at the time of manufacture.

Howarth also described and diagrammed a type of guard that inexpensively and feasibly could have been installed on the scrap baling machine to protect operators from injuries at the nip point. Since the machine as originally designed had an

emergency stop bar, Howarth incorporated it into his proposed safety device. The proposed guard would consist of a forty-inch-long horizontal trough or chute extending outward from the feeder opening to the area where the operator would normally stand. The chute would be too long to permit an operator to reach through it to the nip point to attach or reattach the ribbons to the mandril. However, there would be a hinged lid on the top of the chute that could be opened to give operators easy access to the nip point only when such access would be safe -- that is, only when the machine's emergency stop bar was depressed. In addition, to protect against accidental reactivation of the machine while the lid was open, the machine would be equipped with an electrical interlock device to make operation of the machine impossible unless the lid was closed; both the trough and the lid would have electrical contact points that would have to be touching to complete the electrical circuit and activate the machine.

According to Howarth, such safety devices would have prevented a worker from getting his or her hand or arm accidentally drawn between the rollers while attaching or reattaching ribbons at the dangerous nip point. Under Howarth's proposed design, even if the operator's arm were caught in the ribbons and dragged into the chute, he or she would at most suffer cuts or scratches from the metal ribbons but would not suffer a more serious crushing injury from the rollers at the nip point. Moreover, if the operator's arm were dragged into the chute, he or she could pull down the emergency stop bar to prevent the machine from drawing in the ribbons any further and thereby prevent more severe lacerations. According to the expert, even if the emergency stop was not working, it would still release the chute lid, which would in turn stop the power. Howarth also stated that the cost of these safety devices would be minimal and would not decrease the machine's capacity.

Lutz, also a mechanical engineer, was defendants' expert witness. Lutz testified, based on his inspection of the scrap baling machine, that "[i]n relationship to the function for which

the machine was designed or what it was designed to accomplish, it is a safe machine." He based his conclusion on his belief that the machine had two safety devices in the immediate proximity of loading -- a stop button and the stop bar. However, he testified further, on cross-examination, that the concept of guarding in-running nip points was known since at least 1913, that it was foreseeable to manufacturers of power machinery that accidental start-up can occur, and that accidental start-ups probably were foreseeable to defendants in 1955, when the machine was manufactured. Additionally, he acknowledged that the operator would place his or her hands in a dangerous area while threading or rethreading the machine. Finally, Lutz acknowledged that there was no guard on the machine and conceded that he had no knowledge of anything that defendants ...


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