Yale Student’s Death: Product Liability or Preventable Accident?

Usually, most of the legal stories giving rise to posts on this blog originate in or have to do with cases and legal issues in Massachusetts. However, a tragic incident at Yale University earlier this week, illustrates the importance of product liability law, and the impact it can have on making products safer for the Americans who use those products.

Scituate, Massachusetts resident Michele Dufault, a bright Yale University student, was killed earlier this week in a horrific incident involving a lathe at a machine shop on campus. Dufault, a senior at the Ivy League school who was majoring in physics and astronomy, was found at Yale’s Sterling Chemistry Laboratory at around 2:30 AM Thursday by other students in the building. The students immediately called New Haven police, but it was too late. A statement from Yale University president Richard C. Levin did not reveal whether Dufault died in the lab or later at a hospital. Nor was there a statement as of Friday evening, April 15, as to whether Dufault had been alone in the lab, or not.

This incident must have been absolutely horrific. I remember working on a lathe in high school machine shop. When I look back on those times, I’m surprised that I wasn’t injured, as well — this machinery is very powerful, and extremely dangerous. For those unfamiliar with machine shop equipment, a lathe is a machine that is used to shape usually straight lengths of metal or wood by spinning it at extremely high speeds. (So fast that when spinning in the lathe, the length of wood or metal would look like a blur to the naked eye.) Carving tools are applied to the edges of the spinning wood or metal, to shape the material. By all available accounts of the incident, Ms. Dufault’s hair became caught in the lathe, pulling her head into the machinery.

Right now, Dufault’s family is deep in grief. The idea of losing a daughter or son at this tender moment in life, when all the promise in the world awaited her, is too tragic to adequately describe. Friends of Ms. Dufault have universally described her as brilliant, widely admired and a good friend. At Noble & Greenough School in the next town over from my Westwood office, in Dedham, Mass., headmaster Robert P. Henderson Jr., characterized Dufault as precocious and “Simply brilliant. She was a true intellectual,” Henderson said of the 2007 graduate. Dufault was also a student at an institution that I am very familiar with from my boyhood summers in Falmouth, Massachusetts – the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Dufault worked with scientists to design and operate undersea robotics.

The incident has triggered federal and internal university investigations of campus safety protocol. According to University President Richard Levin, until those reviews are completed, the university will limit undergraduate student access to school facilities with power equipment, and will also place additional personnel as monitors in the laboratories at all times. I’m sure Levin has spoken with Univeristy lawyers, as that is a smart immediate move.

But just as investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are presently trying to piece together the details of this accident, the question will eventually loom larger: Was this accident preventable, and if so, were there failures on the part of either the lathe manufacturer or the school – failures which, had they not been present, would have prevented this tragedy? In the case of machine shop equipment such as a lathe, several legal questions come to mind:

1) Were there unmistakably prominent and noticeable warnings on the machinery, advising that all loose clothing be secured, and keep clear of the moving parts of the machine?

2) More important: Were there equally prominent signs warning that any long hair worn by the user must be tied back and kept away from the machinery at all times? Warnings regarding loose clothing are common, but were there warnings about anyone using the machinery that had “long” hair, bangs, or hair in excess of shirt collar length?

3) Were there safety guards in place, to prevent loose clothing or hair from being accidentally caught in the machinery?

4) Was there an automatic, emergency braking system, when any foreign material became entangled by the equipment? Note: Similar emergency “braking” detectors have been developed and placed in use by manufacturers of circular saws and table saws. Ultra-sensitive detectors can actually sense if flesh or blood has suddenly been pulled or brought into the equipment. In that event, and emergency brake is activated to halt the equipment’s moving parts immediately.

5) Were the equipment and the University machine shop in compliance with all relevant and applicable OSHA regulations and standards?

It is far too soon for the Dufault family to consider these questions. But, eventually, these questions will need to be asked. Whether a product liability suit or possibly a wrongful death suit is called for against the manufacturer, designer or distributor of this equipment has yet to be determined. Product Liability is the area of law that governs the rights of persons who have been injured or even killed due to defective products. The “defect” in a product, could have occurred at several stages in the life of the product: It could be found to be in the design, manufacturing, distributing, advertising or even marketing of a product. This can be a broad definition, but in general, a product will usually be found to be “defective” if the danger the product posed could have been reasonably foreseen by either the manufacturer, or someone in the chain of production, distribution or marketing.

The process of investigating the forensic details of this horrible accident will be disturbing, to say the least. But if accidents like this are to be prevented in the future, or at least made less likely, this inquiry needs to be made. It is because of tort law and the right of citizens to sue for personal injuries and deaths caused by dangerous or defective products, that so many products in the U.S. are now made safer. The list runs on and on, but includes not only power equipment such as saws and nail stud guns, but cars, baby cribs, baby pajamas, electrical appliances, furnaces, and on.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Ms. Dufault’s family.