Cepeda v. Cumberland Engineering Co., Inc.

Decision Date05 January 1976
Citation138 N.J.Super. 344,351 A.2d 22
PartiesJose Francisco CEPEDA, an infant, by his guardian ad litem Victoria Cepeda and Victoria Cepeda, individually, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. CUMBERLAND ENGINEERING COMPANY, INC., a corporation, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

Edward R. Schwartz, Newark, for defendant-appellant (Schwartz & Andolino, Newark, attorneys, Frank Cinquina, Newark, on the brief).

Mark D. Larner, Newark, for plaintiffs-respondents (Budd, Larner, Kent, Gross & Picillo, Newark, attorneys).

Before Judges MATTHEWS, LORA and MORGAN.


This is a products liability case.

Defendant Cumberland Engineering Company, Inc. (Cumberland), appeals from a judgment entered upon a jury verdict awarding plaintiffs damages in the amount of $125,000. Defendant contends that the trial judge erroneously denied its motion for judgment at the end of plaintiffs' case and its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Alternatively, it contends that it is entitled to a new trial because of an incorrect evidentiary ruling, erroneous rejection of several requests to charge, inconsistency between two of the answers given by the jury in connection with its special verdict, and on the ground that the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

On April 3, 1968 plaintiff Jose Cepeda, suffered an accident in the course of his employment with Rotuba Extruders, Inc. which resulted in the amputation of four fingers of his left hand. The accident occurred while plaintiff was operating a piece of equipment, known as a pelletizer, which had been designed and manufactured in 1956 by defendant and sold to Rotuba. As described by several of the witnesses, the pelletizer is a machine designed to accept thin strips of plastic from an extruder and cut them into small pellets by means of rollers which pull the strips into revolving blades which do the actual cutting. As designed by defendant, the roller area was protected by a guard, affixed to the machine by four bolts, supplied by the manufacturer to avoid accidental injury to the operator by preventing contact between the operator's body and the rollers and blades. Although designed to be affixed to the pelletizer during normal operations, the guard was removable, through use of a wrench applied to the bolts, so that the machine could be serviced and cleaned. There was no dispute but that plaintiff's accident would not have occurred had the guard been in place at the time.

Plaintiff had worked at the pelletizing machine for a period of eight months prior to the accident. At no time before the morning of the accident did he operate the equipment without the guard. Although he professed ignorance as to the nature of the guard despite his extended experience with the equipment, his supervisor testified that he was instructed never to remove it. Plaintiff denied he received this instruction. The accident occurred, after three hours of continuous use without the guard, when plaintiff's hand was caught in a ribbon of plastic and uncontrollably drawn into the unguarded rollers.

Eugene Drood, vice-president of Rotuba Extruders and plant manager at the time of the accident, testified that there were three different operations which necessitated removal of the guard: first, loose particles occasionally became lodged in the machine and the guard had to be removed in order to reach them; second, when changing the colors of plastic it was essential that all residual color from the preceding run be removed, and to do that removal of the guard was essential; third, the strips of plastic do occasionally clog the machine and the guard must be removed in order to untangle and unclog the interior mechanism. Although there was some dispute as to the frequency with which the guard had to be removed during its operational functions as distinguished from maintenance of the equipment itself, the evidene clearly supports plaintiff's contention that occasions did arise necessitating its removal during normal operations. There was no dispute, however, that whenever the guard required removal for whatever cause, proper procedure required the machine to be deactivated and not to be again put into operation until the guard was replaced.

Plaintiffs, through their expert, Isaac Stewart, admitted that the guard was fully sufficient to have prevented plaintiff's accident had it been in place at the time it occurred; that it was not defectively designed, and that it not only insured the operator's safety but aided in the efficient functioning of the equipment by serving to guide the plastic ribbons into the rollers. The alleged design defect in the pelletizer upon which plaintiff predicated his claim was the absence of a so-called 'interlock,' a device which would have deactivated the machine whenever the guard was removed. According to Stewart, in view of the removable nature of the guard and the necessity for its removal during normal operation for cleaning and unclogging the equipment, proper safety design dictated incorporation of such a device to foreclose possible operation without the guard in place. His opinion was given without reference to industry standards prevailing at the time the equipment was designed, manufactured and sold. Uncontradicted evidence from the defendant disclosed, however, that competing manufacturers utilizing a fixed guard similar to the one used on the Cumberland Pelletizer did not employ an interlock at the time this equipment was designed and sold. 1

Defendant's expert denied the necessity for an interlock on a fixed guard, bolted to the machine. 2 He, too, testified as to the adequacy of the guard to prevent what occurred in the present case. Both Stewart and defendant's expert agreed that bypassing an interlock or otherwise rendering it inoperative was a simple matter, and the latter had seen interlocks bypassed during his experience in the plastics industry.

The case was submitted to the jury on the theory of strict liability in tort. Plaintiff's motion to strike the defense of contributory negligence was denied. The judge submitted special interrogatories to the jury which required their determination as to whether the pelletizer was defective in design, whether such defect was a proximate cause of the accident, whether plaintiff was contributorily negligent and whether such contributory negligence was a proximate cause of the accident.

The jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor for $125,000. Specifically, the jury found the pelletizer defective in design and that such design defect was a proximate cause of plaintiff's accident. Although it also found plaintiff guilty of contributory negligence, it concluded that such contributory negligence did not proximately cause the accident. Defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding a verdict was denied.

Defendant contends that the presence of a fully effective safety guard on the pelletizer discharged the manufacturer's acknowledged obligation to provide equipment reasonably safe for the 'intended' use. Santor v. A. & M. Karagheusian, Inc., 44 N.J. 52, 207 A.2d 305 (1965). Plaintiff contends, on the other hand, that presence of an effective safety guard is insufficient when normal operation of the equipment requires removal of the guard in order to clean the machine; in such circumstances the manufacturer's duty extends to preventing, if feasible, possible misuse of the equipment, or operation contrary to design intentions. Since it was at all times undisputed that instllation of an interlock was both feasible and inexpensive, it follows, according to plaintiff, that failure to install one could properly be viewed by a jury as a design defect.

We disagree. In Bexiga v. Havir Mfg. Corp., 60 N.J. 402, 290 A.2d 281 (1972), a case in which plaintiff was injured by a wholly unguarded punch press, the court held that a manufacturer of such equipment, clearly dangerous when unprotected by safety devices, is not absolved from liability merely on the expectation, however reasonable (because of practices in the trade) that such necessary devices would be supplied by the purchaser. The Cumberland Pelletizer, with which we are here concerned, came equipped with an admittedly effective safety guard and we are nonetheless asked to conclude that a jury question concerning the defectiveness of the equipment was created by failure of the manufacturer to incorporate a device which would have foreclosed use of the equipment without the safety guard. We are unable to reach this conclusion.

Since a manufacturer is entitled to expect normal use of his product, Maiorino v. Weco Products Co., 45 N.J. 570, 574, 214 A.2d 18 (1965), and may therefore assume that a provided safety mechanism will be used, he cannot be held responsible for unforeseeable negligence on the part of third parties in operating or permitting operation of the equipment without the device. Plaintiff has offered no authority, and we have been unable to find any, which holds to the contrary. In Smith v. Hobart Mfg. Co., 302 F.2d 570 (3 Cir. 1962), plaintiff's hand was injured when it became entangled in the revolving worm of an electrically powered meat grinder when he slipped on a platform while feeding meat into the grinder. When the grinder had been delivered to plaintiff's employer it had been equipped with a guard affixed to it over the mouth of the bowl into which meat was fed to be ground, the purpose of which was to prevent the hand of an operator of the machine from accidentally entering the mouth of the bowl and touching the worm. The guard was later removed by one of plaintiff's coemployees in order that larger chunks of meat could be passed into the bowl. Plaintiff had operated the machine, once with the guard in place and twice with the guard removed. The accident occurred during operation of the grinder without the guard. The court reversed the...

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