Consumers and product safety advocates won a victory recently, with a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. This court is the federal appellate court for Massachusetts and surrounding states; it hears appeals from the U.S. District Court in Boston, and other federal District Courts in this immediate area. Because this is a federal decision, it will hold significant precedential weight in similar cases filed throughout the United States in the future.
The case began when a construction worker suffered a severe injury to his hand when using a bench-top table saw. The saw’s blade cut into his hand, causing permanent injuries. The saw was a Ryobi Model BTS 15 bench-top table saw, purchased at a Home Depot. Following the injury, the plaintiff sued the manufacturer, Ryobi Technologies, Inc., in U.S. District Court in Boston, seeking damages for his injuries. His suit claimed negligence and breach of the “implied warranty of merchantability,” which is a Massachusetts law that regardless of what a manufacturer’s written warranty may expressly state, the product carries an “implied” warranty, that it is “merchantable,” (safely usable,) and that it is fit for a particular purpose.
“Negligence?”, I’m sure you ask. “Why should a saw manufacturer be held liable if someone using the saw suffers an injury from the blade?” Why? Because, as a Boston, Massachusetts product liability lawyer I can assure you, there’s always a story behind the story – and there’s a story behind this one. Which is: It seems as though Ryobi Technologies was aware of a certain technology that had become known as a flesh-detection system called “SawStop.” This device basically stops the saw blade immediately whenever it senses some kind of flesh pressing against the spinning blade. At trial before the U.S. District Court in Boston, the plaintiff argued that as manufactured and sold, the saw was defectively designed, unsafe, and that the “SawStop” technology represented a reasonable and viable alternative design. Supporting this argument, the plaintiff presented testimony of his expert witness, the man who invented “SawStop” in 1999. That inventor testified that he had presented SawStop to several major saw manufacturers, including Ryobi, in 2000. All had refused to adopt the new safety technology, despite the fact that it worked. And why? The plaintiff argued that it was due to a “silent agreement” among several manufacturers that if even one of them adopted the safety system, the others would be forced to do the same, or face heightened liability exposure to liability if they didn’t. That’s called a “conspiracy of silence.” Typical corporate America.
The District Court jury awarded a verdict of $1.5 million for the plaintiff. Ryobi appealed, and that’s what led to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision.
At appeal, Ryobi argued that the plaintiff had failed to present adequate evidence that the flesh-detection technology met the test for a “suitable alternative design”, under a 1978 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision in the area of product liability law. That decision, Back v. Wickes Corp, established five factors to be considered in determining whether a product could have been made safer using a “suitable alternative design.” Ryobi argued those tests had not been met, and thus the jury that previously found in favor of the plaintiff, never should have even heard the case.
Not so, according to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, affirming the verdict of $1.5 million.
The court wrote that “As a matter of law, we do not find support for [Ryobi’s] suggestion that a plaintiff asserting a design defect claim must present an alternative design that meets all the … Back factors prima facie. Quite the opposite, all Massachusetts law requires is that ‘competing factors should be balanced when deciding reasonableness of design.”The bottom line of this decision is that dangerous products, such as table saws and other dangerous products, will now be made safer by manufacturers. They won’t be able to hide behind onerous legal requirements that prevent injured plaintiffs from essentially saying, “This product as you manufactured it is unreasonably dangerous. You knew that you could have made it safer, but you chose not to, basically to save money, and you should be held liable for the injuries that would not have resulted if you manufactured your product in a safer way.” That’s a victory for consumers suffering a Massachusetts personal injury due to an unsafe product, and for anyone who’s ever been injured by a callous corporation.
The decision is Osorio v. One World Technologies, Inc., et al.