Martin v. Fleissner GmbH, 83-1280

Decision Date13 August 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-1280,83-1280
Citation741 F.2d 61
Parties16 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 654 George MARTIN, Appellee, v. FLEISSNER GMBH, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Hoover C. Blanton, Columbia, S.C. (John R. Holland, Columbia, S.C. on brief), for appellant.

Charles E. Carpenter, Jr., Columbia, S.C. (F. Barron Grier, III, Richardson, Plowden, Grier & Howser, Columbia, S.C., Victor S. Sarratt, Gaffney, S.C., on brief) for appellee.

Before RUSSELL, WIDENER and SPROUSE, Circuit Judges.

WIDENER, Circuit Judge:

Fleissner GmbH, a German manufacturer of industrial equipment for the textile industry, appeals from a jury verdict in favor of appellee George Martin for injuries received while cleaning an allegedly improperly designed item of Fleissner equipment. We affirm the award of $400,000 in actual damages; however, we reverse as to the award of punitive damages.

The accident which is the basis of this litigation involved an item of industrial equipment known as a "crimper." A crimper is one element of the "stretch line," a production line for synthetic fibers. The strands of fiber produced on this line, known as the "tow," pass through the crimper, which imparts a crimp in the fiber, giving it characteristics similar to those of natural fibers. The tow is channeled between two metal crimper rollers (the bottom one fixed, the upper under pneumatic pressure, both at 120-130? Fahrenheit) by an intake chute. The chute also operates as a guard while the crimper is running. When in place, the nip point, where the crimper rollers meet, is inaccessible. The rollers, which all but touch, are turned by electric drive motors. They pull the tow through, compress it, and push it into a "stuffer box" which causes the crimp. Abrasion over time necessitates the renewal of the surfaces of the rollers, which is generally performed by millwrights, who regrind the surfaces. Also, there is some slight adhesion of the chemical treatment on the fibers, and perhaps of the fibers themselves, to the rollers as the fibers run through. The material so adhering must be cleaned off, and it is the cleaning of the rollers which precipitated this case.

In 1972, Fleissner communicated with Hoechst Fibers Industries (Hoescht), plaintiff's employer, a polyester fiber manufacturer located in South Carolina, to offer to sell it a crimper. As a part of the sales negotiations, Fleissner provided a crimper to Hoechst for testing and evaluation, which was later returned, having been used for some months. The sales negotiations involved over 1- 1/2 years of consultations between the parties, though Fleissner was not told any of the specifics of the chemical processes used in Hoechst's fiber manufacture (they were proprietary and closely guarded) beyond the functions a crimper in the projected tow line would have to perform. Fleissner personnel witnessed the Hoechst operation in the course of negotiation and design.

On November 23, 1973, Hoechst issued a purchase order to Fleissner for a crimper. By subsequent purchase order, Hoechst specified Reliance Electric as the supplier of the drive system for the stretch line, including the crimper, and requested the cooperation of the two companies to assure compatibility.

Fleissner, although it was to and did design the crimper, adapts its equipment to specific purchaser needs, so that there was consultation between Hoechst's engineering department and Fleissner on the accommodation of the crimper with the stretch line being built. However, the most significant change made through these consultations was the switch from a side-by-side arrangement of the dual crimper heads to a vertical one. Hoechst provided drawings of how it wished the heads arranged (one set several feet above and to one side of the other), which Fleissner used to make its drawings from which the crimper was ultimately manufactured. This change did not implicate the basic design or specifications of the Fleissner crimper process. The drawings were approved by Hoechst June 5, 1974.

The crimper was shipped from Germany in December 1974 and arrived some time in January 1975. Its installation by Hoechst was inspected by Fleissner.

The appellant, George Martin, had been an employee at Hoechst from 1967, and had worked his way up to (A) operator by 1977. On November 13, 1977, the stretch line which included the Fleissner crimper developed an "overlength" problem. Upon inspection, Martin discovered the crimper rollers had developed a build-up of the chemical finish used on the fibers in the tow, which was causing the problem. Martin shut down the line, cut and removed the tow from the crimper, unscrewed and swung out the intake chute, and turned the machine on at low speed. He then held a piece of abrasive fabric against the upper roller to remove the build-up. Switching to his left hand, he moved to the lower roller. The fabric was caught by the crimper and, before he could react, his hand was pulled in between the rollers. The pressure, rotation, and temperature and the time lost while the crimper was opened to release his hand (25-30 minutes) did substantial damage to the hand, resulting ultimately in the amputation of most of it across the palm.

Build-up of the chemical finish was a common occurrence on the stretch line which incorporated the Fleissner crimper, requiring frequent cleaning by Hoechst personnel. Because of previous accidents during cleaning of the crimper, Hoechst employees had constructed paddles, covered with scotchbrite (an abrasive fabric) to do the job without endangering their hands. Martin, in a hurry to get the stretch line up again, did not use one.

Martin was unable to work at Hoechst for about nine months following the accident. He was hospitalized for a month, underwent six operations, and experienced considerable pain. He returned as an (A) operator in August 1978, though he was unable to perform all the functions that job required. In early 1981, he reported to work after he had been drinking, was sent home, and was subsequently terminated. He has been unable to find similar work because the loss of his hand has compromised his skills, and he is currently employed as a security guard, making less money and with fewer benefits than at Hoechst.

The case was tried to a jury which returned a verdict for $400,000 in actual damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, upon which judgment was entered.

This is a diversity case and is decided pursuant to the law of the state in which the tort occurred. Erie Railroad v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). Fleissner has raised several issues on appeal, which attack the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain the jury verdict and damages award, the applicability of South Carolina's strict liability statute, and the propriety of the award of punitive damages.

Martin introduced the testimony of two expert witnesses, Dr. Bradbury and Dr. Jur. Both were qualified by the court as experts in mechanical engineering and design. Dr. Bradbury is a professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson University, where his specialty is design, including safety design. In addition, he does consulting work for industry. Dr. Jur is an engineering consultant with extensive practical and academic experience, whose specialty is also design. While neither had direct experience with Fleissner crimpers, both testified they were familiar with the engineering principles underlying the operation of the rollers from their experience in other fields such as printing, papermaking, or sheet metal production. Both visited the Hoechst plant and observed the Fleissner crimper in operation, and, based on their knowledge and expertise, found the crimper to be poorly designed. Dr. Jur called it unreasonably dangerous, as did Dr. Bradbury. Dr. Jur went on to note that it did not appear that Fleissner had made any provision at all for safe cleaning of the crimper.

Considerable controversy arose over the question whether Fleissner knew or should have known that the finish on the tow would accumulate on the rollers and would require the frequent cleaning which led to Martin's accident, and thus should have provided safe cleaning methods. The evidence is conflicting, as Fleissner claims it had no such knowledge and elicited from all of the expert witnesses the information that they...

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