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Grier v. Cochran Western Corp.

February 23, 1998

DENIS GRIER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
COCHRAN WESTERN CORPORATION, A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION, INDIVIDUALLY AND/OR AS A SUBSIDIARY OF WESTERN GEAR CORP., A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION AND/OR LANTIS CORPORATION, A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND WESTERN GEAR CORP., A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION; LANTIS CORPORATION, A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION; FRONTIER AIRLINES, A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION; JOHN DOE AND MARY ROE, SAID NAMES BEING FICTITIOUS AND UNKNOWN, INDIVIDUALLY AND/OR AS SERVANTS, AGENTS OR EMPLOYEES OF ABC CORPORATION, SAID NAME BEING FICTITIOUS AND UNKNOWN, A CORPORATION OR BUSINESS ORGANIZATION, *FN1 DEFENDANTS.



Argued: January 13, 1998 Before Judges Dreier, Keefe and P.G. Levy. On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Keefe, J.A.D.

[9]    In this product liability case, plaintiff, Denis Grier, appeals from a jury verdict in favor of defendant Cochran Western Corporation. The jury found that a beltloader vehicle manufactured by defendant was not defective either in its design or for the inadequacy of instructions and warnings that accompanied the product. We affirm.

Plaintiff was employed by Continental Airlines. Plaintiff claimed that he was an "on-line" driver, but also described his job title on his income tax return as a "ramp agent." Alvin Godfrey, the man who trained plaintiff for Continental, explained that "ramp agent" is a general title for those who marshall in the planes and service them, including on-line drivers and those who drive beltloaders.

A beltloader is a self-powered, four wheel vehicle that contains a conveyor. The conveyor is ordinarily horizontal to the ground when not in use. When it is driven to an aircraft the conveyor is hydraulically raised to whatever height is appropriate to access the cargo hold. It was stipulated at trial that the accident involved a 600-U model beltloader, manufactured by defendant, and purchased in 1980 at a cost of $18,925 by Frontier Airlines. At the time of the accident, the beltloader was owned by Continental Airlines.

A ramp agent's job duties include driving the beltloader to the aircraft, raising the conveyor to the appropriate height, entering the cargo hold, and placing the luggage on the conveyor belt. An on-line driver then places the luggage that has been unloaded from the aircraft onto a cart, and transports the luggage to another destination. Plaintiff maintained that his job duties were essentially those of an on-line driver, but there was testimony that he was trained as a ramp agent to perform all functions necessary to that title, including the use of a beltloader.

On August 25, 1993, plaintiff and other ramp agents arrived at an airbus 300 wide-body aircraft that had taxied in and was to be unloaded. One of the ramp agents, Dave Cubilette, who had entered the plane's cargo hold, had difficulty unloading a large dog in a travel cage and asked plaintiff for assistance. Plaintiff testified that he did not want to enter the plane, primarily because it was not his job to do so, and also because there would be no one to perform his duties on the ground. Plaintiff's supervisor allegedly instructed plaintiff to enter the cargo hold and help Cubilette unload the dog. Cubilette, however, denied that when he asked plaintiff for help unloading the dog there was any mention by plaintiff that he did not want to do it or that it was not his job.

In any event, the conveyor belt was stopped so that plaintiff could walk up the beltloader into the aircraft. Plaintiff testified that when they finished unloading the dog, the conveyor belt was again stopped so that he could walk back down the beltloader.

On his way down the beltloader, plaintiff stepped on the conveyor belt, slipped, and fell off the left side of the conveyor, when viewed facing out from the plane. He landed on the tarmac, approximately 13-14 feet below. At the time of the accident, a guardrail that was affixed to the left side of the beltloader, also when viewed from the aircraft, was not raised. The inference is that, had the guardrail been in the raised position, it would have prevented plaintiff's fall.

The guardrail could be used in three different settings. It could be down entirely so that oversized luggage could go up and down without restriction; it could be raised partially to prevent wind from blowing smaller bags off the conveyor; and it could be fully raised to provide support for people ascending or descending the conveyor. Raising the guardrail is accomplished by removing two retaining pins, and then manually lifting the rail, much like a garage door with spring assistance. The retaining pins are re-inserted to hold the rail in place. One of plaintiff's co-workers estimated that it takes ten seconds or less to raise the rail. Plaintiff's liability expert, Ernest Niles, estimated it would take thirty seconds, but he did not dispute that it could be done as quickly as the co-worker testified.

Niles recommended an interlocking device that entirely prevented the machine's operation without the guardrail raised. When confronted with the proposition that guardrails were not needed when unloading an aircraft with cargo holds lower than a wide-body aircraft, Niles posited that, if such a device proved to be unfeasible, then there could be a manual cut-off for the interlocking device. Alternatively, Niles suggested a mechanism that would connect "the raising of the ramp to an alarm so that whenever the ramp is raised and the safety rail is not, the alarm would go off." Niles also suggested an alternate design where the beltloader could be rigged so that the ramp could not be raised until the guardrail was raised. As to this alternative, Niles was presented with the proposition that airlines prefer not having the rail raised until after the conveyor is raised so as not to damage the aircraft. He acknowledged the difficulty in getting the loader against the aircraft if the guardrail had to be raised before the belt was raised in such situations.

Niles testified that all that would be required for these designs would be some extra wiring, and that the cost for the devices would be between $25 and $50, depending on whether it was installed at the time the machine was manufactured or afterward. In contrast, the designer of the beltloader, Robert Notman, disagreed that "an interlock with an alarm . . . somehow tied into the handrail would be a reasonably inexpensive addition." He stated that such an interlock would cost between two and three thousand dollars.

With respect to the guardrail warnings, plaintiff's expert Niles stated that the warnings contained in the manufacturer's manual were insufficient and that there should have been warnings "highlighted and visible" on the machine itself, stating, for example, "Danger. Do not use conveyor belt without handrail." On cross-examination, Niles acknowledged that the rail was painted a shade of yellow termed "OSHA yellow," so named because "it's a color OSHA recognizes for safety oriented items."

Notman, the designer of the beltloader, testified that he was not aware of any complaints from airlines regarding the three thousand beltloaders sold by defendant. He further said that in his experience in designing beltloaders throughout the years none of them had interlock devices connected to the guardrails.

Also, Lawrence Wharton, testifying for the defense as a liability expert in the field of engineering, stated that he had never heard of any accidents like plaintiff's involving a beltloader. Wharton testified that based on his investigation of the beltloader and his expert opinion,

[The beltloader] was safe [inasmuch as] it provided the appropriate design features to enable the equipment to perform the service which . . . it was designed to perform in a safe manner. It provided the ...


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