Cepeda v. Cumberland Engineering Co., Inc.

Decision Date26 April 1978
PartiesJose Francisco CEPEDA, an infant, by his guardian ad litem, Victoria Cepeda, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CUMBERLAND ENGINEERING COMPANY, INC., Defendant-Respondent.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Mark D. Larner, Newark, for plaintiff-appellant (Budd, Larner, Kent, Gross, Picillo & Rosenbaum, Newark, attorneys).

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

The opinion of the court was delivered by

CONFORD, P. J. A. D. (temporarily assigned).

I

We granted certification, 70 N.J. 274, 359 A.2d 486 (1976), to review a decision of the Appellate Division, 138 N.J.Super. 344, 351 A.2d 22 (1976), reversing a judgment entered on a jury verdict for plaintiff in the Law Division and directing entry of judgment in favor of defendant. The action, brought by a workman operating a "pelletizing" machine, was for negligence and breach of warranty against the manufacturer of the machine, for damages consequent upon the loss of four fingers of the left hand resulting from an accident in the course of such operation in 1968. Although the machine came from the manufacturer with a bolted guard which would have prevented the accident, the guard had apparently been removed before plaintiff came to work on the day of the accident.

The theory of plaintiff's action was that the machine was defectively designed from a safety standpoint, in that the guard was required to be removed frequently in the normal course of the operation of the machine; that it could have been expected that on some such occasion the guard would not be replaced before resumption of operations, whether inadvertently or otherwise; and that therefore the defendant manufacturer should have equipped it with an electronic "interlock" mechanism, readily available and capable of installation, which would have automatically prevented the operation of the machine when the guard was off. The defense was that the machine was not defectively designed as it met general standards of safety as of the date of its sale to plaintiff's employer, 1956, and as it was reasonably contemplated that the machine would not be operated with the guard off. It was further contended that plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence in operating the machine with the guard off and that such negligence barred recovery, being a substantial factor in bringing about the accident.

At the trial the court denied motions by defendant for dismissal before submission of the case to the jury. It submitted the issue of defendant's liability on the theory of strict liability in tort, framing the question both in terms of A.L.I. Restatement, Torts, 2d, Section 402A (1965) ("Rest.2d Sec. 402A," hereinafter), i. e., whether the machine as sold was "defective" because "unreasonably dangerous" to the user, and of implied warranty, i. e., whether it was defective because "not reasonably fit for the ordinary purpose for which such products are sold and used." The issue of contributory negligence was framed to the jury both under the standard formulation appropriate to an ordinary negligence case ("that degree of care for one's own safety which a person of ordinary prudence would exercise under similar circumstances") and that generally following Rest.2d Sec. 402A, Comment n, i. e., whether plaintiff "voluntarily and unreasonably proceeded to encounter a danger which was known to him."

The court required the jury to respond to four interrogatories: (1) whether the machine was defective in design when sold; (2) whether, in event of an affirmative response to (1), the defect was the proximate cause of the accident; (3) whether plaintiff was contributorily negligent in operating the machine; (4) whether, in event of an affirmative response to (3), such contributory negligence was a proximate cause of the accident; (5) the amount of damages awarded if (1) and (2) were answered affirmatively and either (3) or (4) were answered in the negative. In its verdict the jury answered questions (1), (2) and (3) in the affirmative and (4) in the negative. It awarded plaintiff $125,000 damages, for which judgment was entered against defendant.

The defendant moved for a judgment n. o. v. or for a new trial. One of the grounds for the latter motion was the inconsistency of the answers to questions (3) and (4). The trial court denied the motion. As to the latter ground, the court was of the view that the jury could on the evidence have found plaintiff contributorily negligent but such contributory negligence not a "substantial factor" in bringing about the accident and therefore not a proximate cause thereof.

The Appellate Division found that the evidence compelled the conclusion as a matter of law that the machine as delivered was free of design defect. The manufacturer was "entitled to expect normal use" of its product, and if a safety device provided with the machine was not used, the manufacturer "cannot be held responsible for unforeseeable negligence on the part of third parties in operating or permitting operation of the equipment without the device." 138 N.J.Super. at 351, 351 A.2d at 26. The court did not find it necessary to reach other grounds of appeal raised by defendant.

We have concluded that the Appellate Division did not, as it was required to do, give the plaintiff the benefit of all the proofs and of all legitimate inferences therefrom favorable to plaintiff, before deciding the fact-issues in the case against him as a matter of law; see Shellhammer v. Lehigh Valley Railroad Co., 14 N.J. 341, 345, 102 A.2d 602 (1954). As will appear, the best view of the evidence from the plaintiff's standpoint would permit an inference that it was indeed foreseeable that in view of the frequent occasion for removal of the guard during operations someone would permit the plaintiff to use the machine without the guard or that he would do so ignorantly or inadvertently. In such circumstances, moreover, authoritative interpretation of Rest.2d Sec. 402A, to which provisions this Court has broadly committed itself in this area, see cases cited infra, justifies our adopting the rule that knowledge of the dangerous potentiality of a machine design as reflected by the evidence at trial is imputable to the manufacturer, and that the remaining determinative question as to affirmative liability is whether a reasonably prudent manufacturer with such foreknowledge would have put such a product into the stream of commerce after considering the hazards as well as the utility of the machine, the ease of incorporating a remedial interlock, the likelihood vel non that the machine would be used only with the guard, and such other factors as would bear upon the prudence of a reasonable manufacturer in so deciding whether to market the machine. Wade, 1 "Strict Tort Liability of Manufacturers," 19 S.W.L.J., 5, 15, 17 (1965); Wade, "On The Nature Of Strict Tort Liability For Products," 44 Miss.L.J. 825, 834-835, 837-838, 840 (1973); P. Keeton, 2 "Manufacturer's Liability: The Meaning Of 'Defect' In The Manufacture And Design Of Products," 20 Syracuse L.Rev. 559, 568 (1969); P. Keeton, "Product Liability And The Meaning Of Defect," 5 St. Mary's L.J. 30, 37-38 (1973); Note, 10 U.S.F.L.Rev. 492, 519 (1976). Application of that principle, as we shall demonstrate, required submission of the question of the liability of the manufacturer to the jury on the evidence here adduced.

While we have also concluded that an issue of contributory negligence in the special sense of voluntary unreasonable assumption by plaintiff of a known hazard was also properly for the jury, the inconsistency of the jury's findings of contributory negligence and absence of proximate cause between such negligence and the accident, on the factual record before us, will require a new trial on the issue of contributory negligence.

II

The evidence in the case, taking the most favorable view of the proofs for the plaintiff which could have been entertained by a jury, is as follows.

Plaintiff was an 18 year old native of Santo Domingo who spoke and read no English, had had little schooling, and had worked for the employer, Rotuba Extruders, for eight months when this accident occurred on April 3, 1968. His foremen were Spanish-speaking, as was he. His duties included working on this machine, among other things. At the time, the plant was on a multi-shift operation, and plaintiff's shift was from midnight to 8:00 A.M.

The function of the machine was to draw multiple strands of plastic extruded by another machine into position for cutting into very small pellets, so that the product could be conveniently stored and shipped. When the guard was on the machine, the strands were introduced by the workman into the machine through a horizontal opening in the guard adjoining the table, too narrow to admit a man's hand. However, there was no functional bar to the effectuation of the process in the absence of the guard (plaintiff had worked the machine without the guard several hours on April 3, 1968 before the accident). The strands of plastic were then sucked up by the "nip-point" of two revolving rollers and carried to a rotating drum containing knives which cut the plastic into pellets. Thence the pellets were discharged into a chute.

Although defendant offered testimony to the effect that in addition to its function of protecting the hands of workers the guard was also designed (1) to aid production as a control over the direction in which the strands were fed to the rollers and (2) to contain stray pellets which might bounce out of the machine, the jury could have concluded that the latter purposes were relatively inconsequential and that the only real function of the guard was, as defendant's vice-president denominated it, as a "finger guard."

Plaintiff testified through an interpreter, and a reading of...

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