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Soler v. Castmaster

Decided: December 21, 1984.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

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


This appeal, as well as the companion case of Brown v. United States Stove Co., 98 N.J. 155 (1984), decided today, presents as a major issue a manufacturer's responsibility under principles of strict products liability for injuries to a foreseeable user of a machine that was substantially altered after it left the manufacturer's control. We must address a series of questions in resolving the ultimate issue: whether the machine as originally designed was defective; whether the subsequent alteration was substantial; whether the alteration was foreseeable; and whether the original design defect was a proximate cause of the accident, taking into account the subsequent alteration. Because of the procedural course by which this case reaches us, we must also consider the standards for deciding when any of these issues presents a question for a jury's determination and when it is properly left for the court to decide.

Plaintiff, Manuel Soler, sued defendant Castmaster, Division of H.P.M. Corp., for the improper manufacture of a die-casting machine, the operation of which caused him severe injuries. The complaint alleged causes of action in strict liability, as well as negligence and intentional wrongdoing, for the accidental injuries. Although other parties were named originally as defendants, they are no longer in the case. The matter was tried before a jury. After most of plaintiff's evidence had been presented, the trial court, on defendant's motion, entered a judgment of involuntary dismissal against plaintiff pursuant to Rule 4:37. In entering that judgment, the trial court ruled that there was no dispute that the machine had been altered by the plaintiff's employer, and, as altered, was "an entirely different functional machine." Further, according to the court, there was "no evidence from which a jury could find that the machine

as designed and sold by the defendant had in it the elements which were the proximate cause of this accident."

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter for trial. The court ruled that there were unresolved factual disputes relating to whether (1) the machine was defective when manufactured; (2) the employer's alterations created an entirely different functional machine; and (3) the design defect proximately caused the accident. The Appellate Division also ruled that the "proffered testimony constituted sufficient basis for at least a consideration of the inadequate warning, design defect question." This Court granted certification, 93 N.J. 272 (1983). For the reasons expressed in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.


Plaintiff was injured when certain moving parts of a die-casting machine, manufactured by defendant, closed on his hand. The machine included a mold consisting of two parts, one of which was stationary. In the operation of the machine, during one cycle, the two parts of the mold closed together, forming a cavity into which molten metal was injected. During a second cycle, the metal cooled and the two parts of the mold would separate, freeing the cast metal from the mold. According to the original design of the manufacturer, each cycle of the machine was started manually by the operator. The first cycle began when the operator pressed a designated electrical push-button, causing the mold to close so that hot metal could be injected into it. The second cycle started when the operator pressed another button, permitting the metal to cool and the completed cast to drop from the mold or be removed by hand by the operator. Further, as designed and manufactured by defendant, there was no safety gate or any other device to guard against a person's hand or fingers from coming into contact with the machine's moving parts while it was either in motion or capable of being set in motion. The machine also lacked an

interlock to cut off power while a worker's hands were engaged in dislodging a jammed part from inside the machine.

Sometime after the machine left the manufacturer's control, plaintiff's employer altered the manual mode for starting each cycle. It added a trip wire that automatically started all cycles after the machine was initially turned on. As altered, the second cycle was completed when the cast product separated and fell from the mold, striking the trip wire, which would automatically activate the first cycle. Thus, as altered, the cycles operated continuously. At the time the trip wire was incorporated into the machine, the employer also added a safety gate. When this gate was opened, it would shut off all power into the machine, preventing the opening or closing of the mold.

Plaintiff testified that the injury occurred when he attempted to dislodge a finished product that had not fallen free from the mold. Apparently, this type of jamming of the machine was frequent. In attempting to dislodge the piece, plaintiff claimed that he opened the safety gate and reached into the machine. At this point, the machine was stopped. However, after plaintiff dislodged the part, the machine started again, catching his hand between the two parts of the mold. Although plaintiff testified that the safety gate was open when the machine began to move, his supervisor, who arrived moments after the accident, testified that plaintiff's arm was somehow under the closed safety gate. At trial, plaintiff did not offer an explanation as to how the machine recycled when he attempted to dislodge the part. However, in deposition he had testified that when the piece fell from the mold, it had hit the trip wire, reactivating the cycle.

It was undisputed that the automatic starting mechanism and safety gate were added to the machine by plaintiff's employer. However, plaintiff's expert testified that the machine was unsafe as designed because it had no safety gate or device to act as a barrier in preventing a person's hands from contacting the machine's moving parts. The expert further testified that the

machine should have been equipped with a safety interlock that would shut off all electrical power to the machine. In his opinion, the lack of this device was crucial, since it was foreseeable that a machine -- either manual or automatic -- could malfunction while a person's hand was inside the machine.

Even as originally designed, when a cycle was stopped in the manual mode and the operator was required to press a button to start the machine, the danger or risk that the machine would start up accidentally was still present. Plaintiff's expert analogized the situation to that of a light switch in the "off" position, subject to the existing danger that a large surge of electricity would override the switch and cause the machine to start. A safety gate with an interlock would have eliminated this risk. Those safety devices, according to the expert, were available at the time the machine was built. In addition, the expert testified that such devices would have entailed only moderate cost and would not have impaired the usefulness of the machine. He also stated that the safety device later furnished by the employer was inadequate, as evidenced by the accident itself.

The expert further testified that although the machine was altered in some respects, "the original machine was still there." Plaintiff argues that this statement corroborates testimony of plaintiff's supervisor that the machine's function remained unchanged by the alterations. In addition, the evidence relating to the design and alteration of the machine included testimony that the machine did not have any danger warnings on it at the time of the accident. There was, however, no testimony as to the presence or ...

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