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HOUGHTALING v. UNISYS CORP.

August 7, 1996

LOURDES HOUGHTALING, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNISYS CORP., successor to BURROUGHS CORP., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LIFLAND

 LIFLAND, District Judge

 The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Lourdes Houghtaling alleges that her hands were injured in the course of her employment with the United States Postal Service (the "Postal Service") by the repetitive use of a Multi-Positional Letter Sorting Machine ("MPLSM") manufactured by Unisys Corporation. *fn1" She and her husband, John, assert claims based on products liability and negligence, contending that the MPLSM keyboard design is defective and that Unisys failed to warn of the defect. Unisys now moves for summary judgment, arguing that its tort liability under New Jersey law is preempted by the government contractor defense as set forth by the Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500, 101 L. Ed. 2d 442, 108 S. Ct. 2510 (1988). For the following reasons, the Court will grant Unisys' motion and dismiss Houghtaling's complaint in its entirety.

 Background

 The following facts are not in dispute. Between 1987 and 1993, Lourdes Houghtaling used an MPLSM in the course of her employment with the Postal Service. The MPLSM is a large letter-sorting machine that consists of twelve operator stations. The machine sends about 60 letters per minute past each station, where a worker reads ZIP codes and enters them on two ten-key, piano-style keyboards arranged in two tiers. Based on the ZIP code information entered by the operator, the MPLSM directs each letter to an appropriate sort bin.

 In 1958, the Postal Service awarded Unisys a contract to build ten prototypes of the MPLSM. The sorting machine prototypes were first used in post offices in 1959. In 1964, the Postal Service awarded Unisys the first MPLSM production contract to manufacture 26 machines. Under subsequent contracts over the next two decades, Unisys manufactured over 900 MPLSMs for the Postal Service. The MPLSM design was modified in the early 1970s to allow the machine to use ZIP code information to sort mail, and again in 1980 to accommodate nine-digit ZIP codes.

 The earliest written specifications for the MPLSM contained in the record are from 1970. See Def.'s Ex. 1. These specifications include provisions concerning the operator console, the keyboard, the key pressure adjustment control, the operator chair, and safety devices. See id at PP 3.10.1, 3.10.1.6, 3.10.1.6.1, 3.10.1.10, 3.11.7.12. The specifications also require that the MPLSM conform to Postal Service master drawings. See id at P 2.4. The Postal Service awarded Unisys contracts in the 1970s and 1980s to produce MPLSMs conforming to its design specifications, and approved and accepted the MPLSMs manufactured under these contracts.

 Since the MPLSM was first developed, the Postal Service has undertaken studies of the "human factors" of MPLSM operation, including issues relating to efficiency and ease of use of the keyboard. See Def.'s Ex. 28 (1976 annotated bibliography of Postal Service human factors reports). In 1970, the United Federation of Postal Clerks submitted an agenda for a meeting with representatives of the Postal Service which noted that "in some cases [MPLSM] operators have developed, after years of operating, an arthritic condition in their wrists attributable to sustained suspension of their hands above the keyboard." Def.'s Ex. 22. In 1976, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ("NIOSH") commissioned a study of hand, wrist, and arm problems suffered by MPLSM operators. See Def.'s Ex. 33. Postal Service officials testified before Congress in 1984 about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome suffered by MPLSM operators. See Def.'s Ex. 30.

 Standard for Summary Judgment

 Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure directs a district court to grant summary judgment:

 
if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

  The burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists rests initially with the moving party. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-25, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). If the moving party shows that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-325; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). The non-moving party may establish that the case presents a genuine issue for trial by showing that there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party to enable a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict in that party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the facts, and the reasonable inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Goodman v. Mead Johnson & Co., 534 F.2d 566, 573 (3d Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1038, 50 L. Ed. 2d 748, 97 S. Ct. 732 (1977).

 Government Contractor Defense

 Unisys argues that it is entitled to summary judgment based on the government contractor defense, as set forth by the Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp. Boyle, 487 U.S. at 511. The Boyle Court reasoned that state tort law should not govern discretionary decisions involved in federal procurement. Therefore, the Court ruled that state tort law is preempted as a matter of federal common law where its demands conflict with those placed on contractors by the federal government. Id. The Court held that a government contractor is exempt from state tort liability where (1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to it but not to the United States. Id. at 512. The Third Circuit has ...


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