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Bottignoli v. Ariens Co.

Decided: July 13, 1989.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.

Pressler, O'Brien and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Stern, J.A.D.


[234 NJSuper Page 354] Plaintiffs appeal from a judgment based on a verdict of no cause for action and from the denial of their motions for judgment n.o.v. and new trial.*fn1 We affirm.

The fingers of plaintiff Anthony Bottignoli (hereinafter plaintiff) were severely injured when he endeavored to clear snow from the chute of a snowblower manufactured by defendant. After trial the jury, in response to special interrogatories, concluded that defendant had not designed the snowblower defectively nor failed to give adequate warnings of its danger. We find no basis for disturbing the verdicts or the denial of plaintiffs' motions for judgment n.o.v. or new trial.

The snowblower was manufactured by defendant in 1965, and plaintiff, a carpenter, bought it from one of his customers in January 1985. At the time of sale, the seller no longer had the owner's manual for the snowblower in her possession. Plaintiff therefore never reviewed it.

Plaintiff first used the snowblower on February 6, 1985. He had never used any type of snowblower before. During the first five minutes of use the chute through which the snow was expelled became "clogged,' and plaintiff twice "vibrated' and "bounced' the machine in an attempt to "jar loose' the snow, and "wiped it with my hand.' However, the third time the chute became clogged, this remedy did not work. Therefore, plaintiff put the machine in "neutral and park,' thereby causing its wheels to stop rolling. However, he did not turn the motor off, and the engine continued to run.*fn2 Hence, the blades inside the chute continued to spin at 1,100 revolutions per minute. Plaintiff then reached his ungloved left hand into the chute to clean out the clogged snow. After removing some of the snow, plaintiff's fingers were "grabbed' by the spinning blades causing severe injuries. Ultimately parts of three fingers were amputated.

It was undisputed that there was no guard over the chute opening. There was, however, a decal on the chute which read: "Caution, stop engine before removing obstructions from blower or rake.' Though plaintiff saw the decal, he testified that he

understood the word "obstruction' to refer to "when you ran over something, a piece of branch or whatever.' He testified that he did not consider snow to be an "obstruction', and that he did not understand that he was risking injury by putting his hand into the chute. Rather, plaintiff assumed that, by putting the traction in park and the shift lever in neutral, the blades in the chute "would stop' too. During his initial attempt to clear the clog he did not see that the blades were still spinning in the chute. Nonetheless, he admitted that after he stopped the blower and placed it in park he could "hear the thing turning.'

According to plaintiff's expert, Richard Schwarz, a mechanical engineer, the industry standard in 1965 was to guard the chute opening with an M-shaped wire, which would fit into the opening of the chute, thereby blocking a hand from coming in contact with the impelling blades. Schwarz testified that had the blower been equipped with an "M guard,' plaintiff's "hand could not have gone in deep enough to have been hit by the rotating blades.' Schwarz also testified that defendant failed to include "a deadman's clutch,' another available safety device by which the engine and impelling blades "would be cut off' whenever the operator took his hands off the handle.

According to Schwarz, plaintiff had three means of stopping the blades without turning off the engine on his machine:

One was the clutch, which would disengage the blades. Two, the clutch which would disengage the traction and therefore cut power to the blades. The third would be the throttle which would be put in the stopped position.

In Schwarz's opinion, none of those three methods served as a reasonable substitute for an M guard or deadman's clutch because each required the operator to "leave its position' or disengage the blades by some affirmative act. Schwarz did testify, however, that the accident would not have occurred if plaintiff had chosen any of the three available options. Schwarz further testified that while defendant had incorporated a deadman's clutch in some models built before 1965, it did not become required by industry standards until 1975.

Warnings were, however, required as an industry standard by 1965. According to Schwarz, the cautionary decal on plaintiff's machine was not adequate because it failed to inform users that their fingers could be cut if they inserted their hands in the chute. He stated that "[s]tronger wording including a pictorial view of rotating blades and fingers being chopped off' was necessary to be adequate. Schwarz further concluded that defendant had a duty, after the guard standards were formally adopted in 1975, to make "post-sale warnings' to the public through the media, designed to warn prior purchasers of the dangers similar to those encountered by plaintiff.*fn3 The failure to give such a ...

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