$ Confidential - Negligent Design of Safety Lever

In September 2016, our personal injury lawyers settled a Madison County Illinois wrongful death case. The lawsuit was against a machine manufacturer that negligently designed a safety lever. The lever is supposed to prevent inadvertent starts. As the result of negligent design, the lever allowed an inadvertent start of the machine. The inadvertent start caused the operator’s death when a part struck him in the chest. Our injury lawyers filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the manufacturer and won.

This wrongful death lawsuit settled just one week before trial. The settlement happened soon after our lawyers won a summary judgment motion filed by the Defendant. The defendant’s motion claimed that our  expert was not qualified to testify. They claimed the expert did not have a basis to testify about the negligent design. Our winning response to the summary judgment is below. We made minor changes because a confidentiality agreement was part of the settlement.

Comes Now Plaintiff, by and through counsel in response to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment as follows:

MANUFACTURER seeks the drastic measure of summary judgment for the following two reasons; both reasons are clearly refuted by the evidence. These reasons are:

  1. that plaintiff’s expert is unqualified to opine on the design standard of care and that his opinions about the failure to warn are unsupported by any applicable standards customs or practices.
  2. that plaintiff has no evidence that the lathe design was unreasonably dangerous, or that defendant knew or should have known that the design was dangerous.

Plaintiff has established that his expert is qualified on both the standard of care and the failure to warn. Additionally, plaintiff’s evidence is that the design is unreasonably dangerous. The support for this evidence is not only plaintiff’s expert but also defendant’s agents and employees as well as defendant’s designated representative.

Plaintiff’s Expert Is Qualified Under The Law

In 2002 The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed that Illinois law is unequivocal: the exclusive test for the admission of expert testimony is governed by the standard first expressed in Frye v. United States,293 F. 1013 (D.C.Cir.1923). See Donaldson v. Central Illinois Public Service Co., 199 Ill.2d 63, 767 N.E.2d 314 (2002).

The Frye standard, commonly called the “general acceptance” test, dictates that scientific evidence is admissible at trial if the methodology or scientific principle upon which the opinion is based is “sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” Frye,293 F. at 1014.

Additionally, Illinois Rule 702, Testimony by Experts states: “If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

Where an expert witness testifies to an opinion based on a new or novel scientific methodology or principle, the proponent of the opinion has the burden of showing the methodology or scientific principle on which the opinion is based is sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field which it belongs.”

Plaintiff’s expert is a licensed mechanical engineer. He based his opinions on his skill, learning, and experience as a mechanical engineer. None of his opinions are based on or require any “new or novel scientific methodology or principle”. It is not alleged by the defendant that Plaintiff’s expert is relying on new or novel scientific methodology. The opinions are, in fact, based upon common sense and incorporated into machinery through engineering principles.

Frye or “general acceptance” does not concern the ultimate conclusion. Rather, the proper focus of the general acceptance test is on the underlying methodology used to generate the conclusion. If the underlying methodology used to generate an expert’s opinion is reasonably relied upon by the experts in the field, the fact finder may consider the opinion—despite the novelty of the conclusion rendered by the expert.” (emphasis added) Donaldson, 767 N.E.2d at 324.

Defendant asserts that because Plaintiff’s expert has never designed a lathe that he is somehow unqualified. Lathes are machines that use basic mechanical engineering principles both in the construction and the operation of the lathe.

Defendant asserts that Plaintiff’s expert is unqualified to testify about the following negligent design element: (1) operation of the lathe double motion lever and (2) the use of a lifetime spring or design of the lever spring.

(1) Double Motion Of The Start Stop Lever

Defendant claims that Plaintiff’s expert is unqualified to testify about the lathe starting lever. This lever has a safety design built into the operation of the starting lever. The safety design is that the lathe requires a second movement to turn off and on the lathe’s spinning operation.

Specifically, to start the lathe’s movement, first there is a right lateral motion of the lever until stopped. Second there is an up or down motion which causes the flywheel to spin counter clockwise or clockwise, respectively.

It was the failure of the design of the lathe to require the first motion, the lateral motion, which caused the unintended starting of the lathe’s spinning operation. The defendant admitted that the double motion was a safety design and here it failed due to a design defect. The opinions relating to this defect do not require new or novel scientific methodology. The machine and the design are over 20 years old.

Defendant’ s master engineer and designated representative, testified to these facts in his deposition (attached as exhibit 5):

  1.  The machine has a safety lever and brake that must be operated manually. I know the chuck was open and the rod was loose and became entrapped at the time of the accident.
  2.  There is a double motion, first to the right and then second either counterclockwise for up and clockwise for down. The purpose of the double motion is for safety, and it’s designed that way so that you need to move the lever to the right first, you can’t just go up and down to have the machine start. You would need to artificially or intentionally move the lever one way then another to have the movement engaged
  3. The safety purpose of the double motion is to reduce the likelihood of unintentional machine starts
  4. The spring in the lever puts the lever back when the operator lets go, so when he wants to start the machine he needs to grab it move it to the right to move it up or down.
  5. There are no maintenance documents relating to those springs.
  6. If I stopped the machine with the foot brake I would still need double motion to start up the machine.  If the machine only required a single motion to start the machine would not be safe or acceptable in consideration of safety from an engineer’s standpoint
  7. I have never seen a machine that required only one motion start after the brake is used to stop it
  8. The machine was manufactured in 1995.
  9. Witness admits that the video shows that the machine starts with one motion and not the lateral motion.
  10. He admits that the lathe’s manual does not mention the double motion  as a safety design or in any way whatsoever.
  11. At first upon viewing the defect in the video, he claims the machine was modified to do away with the need for the first (lateral) motion. Then he admits he cannot say how the machine was modified. Then he claims it was modified and that prevents the lever from returning to the left when released.
  12.  After viewing video #11 where the lever does return to the left when released, he admits he cannot explain why sometimes the lever goes back to the left when it is let go and sometimes it does not. This intermittent failure establishes the absence of a modification preventing the lever from returning to the intended position.
  13. He admits that a spring in the lever apparatus makes the lever go back into the neutral position (the opposite direction of the first safety motion) when it is released.
  14. He doesn’t know the characteristics of the spring or who manufactures the spring. He admitted there are no recommendations to replace the spring after any amount of usage. He admitted that defendant didn’t examine old machines to see if there are any problems relating to safety.
  15. He admits that he doesn’t know whether small chips would foul the spring and chips flying around the area are a known intended use of the machine, and the area of the spring is only partially covered.
  16. He admits that he doesn’t know if the failure as seen in the videos can be caused by the failure of the spring.

Plaintiff’s expert has disclosed his expert opinions and methodology through his report and his Illinois Rule 213 disclosure identifying his opinions and the basis thereof and his deposition.

It is expert’s opinion to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the lathe was negligently designed and manufactured in that the double safety starting lever did not operate thereby making the lathe dangerous to the operator. This negligence more likely than not directly caused the death of the plaintiff’s father.

(2) Lifetime Or Design Of Lever Spring

Defendant asserts that plaintiff’s expert has no experience on how long a spring is supposed to last and therefore is unqualified. This is simply not true. Plaintiff’s expert testified that the lifetime of the spring is not specialized knowledge and well within his knowledge as a mechanical engineer.

Additionally, plaintiff’s expert has provided a mechanical engineering textbook from his library published in 1983 titled “Mechanical Engineering Design” which includes chapter 10 titled “Mechanical Springs.” This common reference details equations and designs for springs similar to the spring at issue. Additionally, page 465 of the textbook from 1983 discusses designing a spring for infinite life, stating “springs are made to be used, and consequently there almost always subject to fatigue loading […] must sustain millions of cycles of operation without failure; so it must be designed for infinite life.” See Exhibit 4 – “Mechanical Engineering Design”, 1983. This reference is the type of reference that a reasonable licensed mechanical engineer can rely upon.

Defendant is trying to argue in its motion for summary judgment that somehow a mechanical engineer is not qualified to discuss the design and lifetime of springs. Springs are a basic part of mechanical engineering and do not require new or novel scientific methodology.

Plaintiff’s expert testified that he learned about the design and fatigue of parts such as springs in basic mechanical engineering curricula:

Additionally, defendant claims that plaintiff’s expert simply speculates as to how the malfunctions occurred and caused the decedent’s death. Multiple depositions have been taken in this case including depositions from coworkers and fact witnesses that establish and support the plaintiff’s expert’s conclusion of what most likely occurred in this case. These numerous facts are the basis of his opinions regarding what most likely occurred at the time of the incident, and are contained and detailed in the Plaintiff’s 213 disclosure.

What most likely occurred in this incident is that the decedent was in the process of polishing a steel shaft. After polishing one end of the shaft, the decedent opened the chuck jaws and removed the shaft to put the other end into the chuck jaws so he could polish the other end of the shaft. He was in the process of placing the opposite end of the shaft into the jaws of the chuck so that the jaws could be tightened to secure this end of the shaft, when the lathe was inadvertently started, likely by the leg of the decedent coming into contact with the starting lever.

The lever was in the area of the leg of an operator who was standing in front of the chuck. Because this safety double motion was not working, a single upward motion caused by the inadvertent contact directed the chuck to turn counter clockwise. The jaws of the chuck were open and the inadvertent starting caused the open jaws to catch the shaft directing the other end of the shaft counterclockwise into the chest of the Plaintiff’s decedent, thereby causing his death. The stopping location of the machine and multiple other facts from other witnesses support this specific scenario.

It is expert’s opinion to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the lathe was negligently designed or manufactured in that the spring failed to require two separate motions of the lever to initiate the lathe. This safety design failure was caused by either the use of an inadequate spring or from failing to properly design the space where the spring is housed so that shavings could not foul the spring. This negligence more likely than not directly caused the death of the plaintiff’s Father.

WHEREFORE, plaintiff’s expert is qualified to testify in this matter and defendant’s claims at best go to issues of credibility and not the admissibility. Therefore, plaintiff prays this Court deny defendant’s motion for summary judgment and for whatever other relief this Court deems just and necessary.