Potter v. Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co.

Decision Date27 May 1997
Docket NumberNo. SC,SC
Citation694 A.2d 1319,241 Conn. 199
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties, 65 USLW 2811, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,967 John POTTER et al. v. CHICAGO PNEUMATIC TOOL COMPANY et al. 15457.

John W. Lemega with whom were John B. Farley and, on brief, Michael S. Taylor and James V. Somers, Hartford, for appellants-appellees (defendants).

William F. Gallagher, New Haven, with whom on brief, were Stephen C. Embry, David N. Neusner, Groton, Elizabeth A. Gallagher and Evelyn A. Barnum, New Haven, for appellees-appellants (plaintiff Joseph Gladu et al.).

Before BORDEN, BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

OPINION

KATZ, Associate Justice.

This appeal arises from a products liability action brought by the plaintiffs 1 against the defendants, Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company (Chicago Pneumatic), Stanley Works and Dresser Industries, Inc. (Dresser). The plaintiffs claim that they were injured in the course of their employment as shipyard workers at the General Dynamics Corporation Electric Boat facility (Electric Boat) in Groton as a result of using pneumatic hand tools manufactured by the defendants. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that the tools were defectively designed because they exposed the plaintiffs to excessive vibration, and because the defendants failed to provide adequate warnings with respect to the potential danger presented by excessive vibration.

The defendants appeal from the judgment rendered on jury verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs, claiming: (1) the interrogatories and accompanying instructions submitted to the jury were fundamentally prejudicial to the defendants; (2) the trial court improperly refused to direct a verdict for the defendants even though the jury's initial interrogatory responses demonstrated that several elements of the plaintiffs' claims had not been proven; (3) the trial court, as a result of inconsistencies in the jury's interrogatory responses, improperly submitted the case to the jury for reconsideration along with accompanying instructions that effectively directed the jury to return verdicts for the plaintiffs; (4) the trial court improperly instructed the jury that the defendants' state of the art defense applied only to the failure to warn claim and not to the design defect claim; (5) the trial court's instruction with respect to the alteration or modification defense improperly shifted to the defendants the burden of disproving an essential element of the plaintiffs' case; (6) the trial court improperly instructed the jury that the alterations to the tools by the plaintiffs' employer would bar the defendants' liability only if these alterations had been the sole proximate cause of the plaintiffs' injuries; and (7) the trial court should have rendered judgment for the defendants notwithstanding the verdicts because (a) there was insufficient evidence that the tools were defective in that the plaintiffs had presented no evidence of a feasible alternative design, and (b) there was insufficient evidence that the defendants' tools reached the plaintiffs without a substantial change in condition.

In their cross appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the trial court: (1) unfairly prejudiced the plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages by excluding evidence, based on a misinterpretation of the parties' stipulation, of the number of other persons who allegedly had been injured by the defendants' tools; (2) improperly refused to issue a curative instruction after defense counsel suggested during closing argument that the plaintiffs had failed to produce an expert witness to testify that the tools were defective, although the trial court had granted the defendants' motion in limine precluding the plaintiffs from offering expert opinion evidence on that issue; (3) improperly permitted the jury to view irrelevant and prejudicial videotapes of the defendants' manufacturing process, which included narration concerning the defendants' quality control measures and safety testing procedures; and (4) improperly allowed the defendants to present evidence with respect to Electric Boat's safety practices. We transferred the appeal and the cross appeal from the Appellate Court to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c). We agree with the defendants that the trial court's instruction with respect to the alteration or modification defense improperly shifted to the defendants the burden of disproving an essential element of the plaintiffs' case. We therefore reverse the judgment of the trial court and order a new trial.

The trial record reveals the following facts, which are undisputed for purposes of this appeal. The plaintiffs were employed at Electric Boat as "grinders," positions which required use of pneumatic hand tools to smooth welds and metal surfaces. 2 In the course of their employment, the plaintiffs used various pneumatic hand tools, including chipping and grinding tools, which were manufactured and sold by the defendants. The plaintiffs' use of the defendants' tools at Electric Boat spanned approximately twenty-five years, from the mid-1960s until 1987. The plaintiffs suffer from permanent vascular and neurological impairment of their hands, which has caused blanching of their fingers, pain, numbness, tingling, reduction of grip strength, intolerance of cold and clumsiness from restricted blood flow. As a result, the plaintiffs have been unable to continue their employment as grinders and their performance of other activities has been restricted. The plaintiffs' symptoms are consistent with a diagnosis of hand arm vibration syndrome. Expert testimony confirmed that exposure to vibration is a significant contributing factor to the development of hand arm vibration syndrome, and that a clear relationship exists between the level of vibration exposure and the risk of developing the syndrome.

In addition to these undisputed facts, the following evidence, taken in favor of the jury's verdict, was presented. Ronald Guarneri, an industrial hygienist at Electric Boat, testified that he had conducted extensive testing of tools used at the shipyard in order to identify occupational hazards. This testing revealed that a large number of the defendants' tools violated the limits for vibration exposure established by the American National Standards Institute (institute), and exceeded the threshold limit promulgated by the American Conference of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists (conference).

Richard Alexander, a mechanical engineering professor at Texas A & M University, testified that because machinery vibration has harmful effects on machines and on people, engineers routinely research ways to reduce or to eliminate the amount of vibration that a machine produces when operated. Alexander discussed various methods available to control vibration, including isolation (the use of springs or mass to isolate vibration), dampening (adding weights to dampen vibrational effects), and balancing (adding weights to counterbalance machine imbalances that cause vibration). Alexander testified that each of these methods has been available to manufacturers for at least thirty-five years.

Alexander also stated that, in 1983, he had been engaged by another pneumatic tool manufacturer to perform testing of methods by which to reduce the level of vibration in its three horsepower vertical grinder. The vertical grinder had a live handle, which contained hardware for the air power, and a dead handle, which vibrated significantly more than the live handle because it weighed less. Alexander modified the design by inserting rubber isolation mounts between the handles and the housing, and by adding an aluminum rod to the dead handle to match the weight of the two handles. As a result of these modifications, which were published in 1987, Alexander achieved a threefold reduction in vibration levels.

The plaintiffs also presented the testimony of Charles Suggs, a research engineer at North Carolina State University, who has been investigating machinery vibration reduction since the 1960s. In 1968, Suggs published the first of several papers in which he discussed his success in reducing vibration hazards in chain saws by inserting rubber mounts between the handle and chain saw body. In the 1970s, he also published a series of articles reporting how he had reduced vibration by 70 percent in tools without handles by wrapping the tools with a resilient foam rubber material and a metal sleeve. Additionally, in 1988, Suggs tested the defendants' die grinders and, by applying the same technique, reduced the levels of vibration by between 35 and 60 percent. Additional facts will be presented as warranted.

After a six week trial, the trial court rendered judgment on jury verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs. Finding that the defendants' tools had been defectively designed so as to render them unreasonably dangerous, the jury awarded the plaintiffs compensatory damages. 3 The jury also concluded that the manufacturers had provided inadequate warnings. Because the plaintiffs failed to prove that adequate warnings would have prevented their injuries, the jury did not award damages on that claim. Finally, the jury declined to award the plaintiffs punitive damages. This appeal and cross appeal followed. Additional facts will be provided as warranted.

I

We first address the defendants' argument that the trial court improperly failed to render judgment for the defendants notwithstanding the verdicts because there was insufficient evidence for the jury to have found that the tools had been defectively designed. Specifically, the defendants claim that, in order to establish a prima facie design defect case, the plaintiffs were required to prove that there was a feasible alternative design available at the time that the defendants put their tools into the stream of commerce. We disagree.

In order properly to evaluate the parties'...

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