Thompson v. Package Machinery Co.

Decision Date20 December 1971
Citation99 Cal.Rptr. 281,22 Cal.App.3d 188
PartiesLinda Joy THOMPSON, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. PACKAGE MACHINERY COMPANY, Defendant and Respondent. Civ. 37428.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Kenneth L. Knapp, Los Angeles, and Leonard Sacks, Pico Rivera, for appellant.

George A. Kuittinen and Jean Wunderlich, Los Angeles, for respondent.

HERNDON, Associate Justice.

Plaintiff brought this action seeking recovery of damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained by her as a result of the defective design of a machine manufactured by defendant's predecessor. She invokes the doctrine of strict liability.

The case was tried with a jury which returned a verdict for the defendant. Plaintiff appeals from the judgment contending that there were prejudicial errors in the trial court's instructions. We have concluded that there is merit in plaintiff's contentions and that a new trial should be ordered.

Statement Of The Facts

At the time of her injury, plaintiff, who was then 20 years old, was employed by a plastic molding company as a machine operator. The subject machine is a closing ram type in which the ram closes and exerts great pressure against a platen, thereby molding the plastic material which is injected into the machine for that purpose. After the plastic is thus molded, the machine opens, and the operator manually removes the molded material. This cycle occurs every 20 seconds during the eight hour working day.

The machine is equipped with a gate which slides along a rail in front of the moving parts. When the gate is in the open position, its weight depresses one of two safety levers which prevent the ram from closing and striking against the platen. While the gate is in the open position, the operator removes the finished part from the die.

When the gate is closed by manually pushing it to the right, thus preventing access to the moving die parts, the first of the two safety levers is released and automatically moves into the 'go' position. The die parts will then close when the second lever is manually turned to the right by the operator. Thus, the ram will close and strike against the platen only when both levers have been forced into the 'go' position--the first by the closing of the gate with the operator's left hand, and the other when it is turned to the right with the right hand.

The accident in question occurred when plaintiff opened the gate and, as usual, reached inside the machine to remove the plastic which had been molded. The machine closed prematurely causing an injury which resulted in the amputation of plaintiff's hand and part of her arm.

The lever that should have held the ram in the locked position by the weight of the gate in its open position was not depressed because the gate had jumped off its slide, thus bypassing that lever. The other lever was moved into the 'go' position by plaintiff, either Intentionally in order to speed up the cycle as defendant sought to prove, or Accidentally by her leaning against it as indicated by plaintiff's version of the accident.

Plaintiff alleged two design defects which, according to her theory of the case, rendered the machine unreasonably dangerous and caused the accident resulting in her injury. Firstly, she alleged that the roller which was designed to keep the gate on the slide was not strong enough to serve its purpose, and, secondly, she alleged that the 'go' lever activated by the operator's right hand was not adequately protected against accidental engagement. Plaintiff, by way of expert testimony, introduced evidence tending to support her theory that the machine's safety devices were inadequate due to their defective design.

Defendant's position was that the gate, if dangerous at all, became so only because of a modification made after it had left the factory. In addition, defendant contended that the machine was not used in the manner it was intended to be used in that plaintiff activated the 'go' lever before closing the gate. Defendant also introduced evidence tending to prove that the gate was safe according to the 'state of the art' at the date of manufacture.

Doctrine of Strict Liability

In the landmark decision of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 59 Cal.2d 57, 62, 27 Cal.Rptr. 697, 700, 377 P.2d 897, 900, it was held that '(a) manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being.' At page 64, 27 Cal.Rptr. at page 701, 377 P.2d at page 901 Greeman held that the plaintiff could recover on a strict liability theory if he proved 'that he was injured while using the (power tool) in a way it was intended to be used as a result of a defect in design and manufacture of which plaintiff was not aware that made the (tool) unsafe for its intended use.'

In Pike v. Frank G. Hough Co., 2 Cal.3d 465, 470, 85 Cal.Rptr. 629, 632, 467 P.2d 229, 232, which was decided subsequent to the trial of the case at bench, the law is stated as follows:

'The duty of a manufacturer with respect to the design of products placed on the market is defined in the Restatement Second of Torts, section 398: 'A manufacturer of a chattel made under a plan or design which makes it dangerous for the uses for which it is manufactured is subject to liability to others whom he should expect to use the chattel or to be endangered by its probable use for physical harm caused by his failure to exercise reasonable care in the adoption of a safe plan or design.' Thus the manufacturer must use reasonable care "to so design his product as to make it not accident-proof, but safe for the use for which it was (sic) intended." (Varas v. Barco Mfg. Co. (1962) 205 Cal.App.2d 246, 258, 22 Cal.Rptr. 737, quoting from 76 A.L.R.2d 91, 94.) What is 'reasonable care,' of course, varies with the facts of each case, but it involves a balancing of the likelihood of harm to be expected from a machine with a given design and the gravity of harm if it happens against the burden of the precaution which would be effective to avoid the harm. (2 Harper and James, The Law of Torts (1956) § 28.4, p. 1542.)'

The jury in the case at bar was properly instructed concerning the general rules of law governing a manufacturer's strict liability for unreasonably dangerous products that cause personal injury when being used as intended. However, as plaintiff contends, the court erred in giving certain other instructions concerning the necessity that the danger be concealed and concerning the effect of intervening forces in relieving the manufacturer of liability.

The Trial Court's Instruction That The Manufacturer's Liability Is Limited To Hidden Defects And Concealed Dangers Was Erroneous.

The trial court gave the following instruction as requested by defendant: 'You are further instructed that generally, the manufacturer's liability is limited to hidden defects and concealed dangers, and this may be so even though other manufacturers provide safety devices.'

In requesting this instruction defendant cited the decision of the Court of Appeal in Pike v. Frank G. Hough Co. However, subsequent to the trial herein, that decision was set aside by the order of the Supreme Court granting a hearing and in the Supreme Court's ensuing decision of Pike above cited the rule of law stated in the challenged instruction was disapproved with the statement at page 474, 85 Cal.Rptr. at page 635, 467 P.2d at page 235 that 'even if the obviousness of the peril is conceded, the modern approach does not preclude liability solely because a danger is obvious.'

Defendant correctly points out that the foregoing quotation from Pike is found in the portion of the decision which deals with the negligence theory of liability. However, it is sufficiently clear that the stated rule applies also when the doctrine of strict liability is invoked. This is indicated by reference to decisions from other jurisdictions which are cited with approval in Pike.

For example, in Wright v. Massey-Harris, Inc., 68 Ill.App.2d 70, 215 N.E.2d 465, cited with approval in Pike at page 476 of 2 Cal.3d, 85 Cal.Rptr. 629, at page 637, 467 P.2d 229, at page 237, the machine involved was a cornpicker. The defects alleged were 'that it lacked a shield over the area in which ears of corn could jam in the chain mechanism and a guard over the shucking rollers from which ears of corn were manually extracted.'

The defendant in the Illinois case contended that 'the complaint fails to allege facts sufficient to demonstrate that there was any hidden or latent defect in them, but on the contrary, the complaint shows that the danger would be obvious to anyone placing his hands in the corn husking rollers while the machine was in operation . . .' (Wright v. Massey-Harris, Inc., Supra, 215 N.E.2d at p. 467.) The Illinois court rejected this contention....

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