Ryobi stuck with $1.5M table saw verdict

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

It seems far-fetched that you're ever going to make table saws completely safe. After all, we are talking about a power tool that has a whirring steel blade as its central feature.

But somehow a federal jury in Massachusetts decided that a table saw without "flesh-detection" technology was defectively designed. And here's the kicker: The 1st Circuit finds nothing wrong with that conclusion.

The case involved a severe hand injury suffered by Carlos Osario at a construction site on April 19, 2005. At the time of the accident, Osario was cutting lumber using a Ryobi Model BTS15 benchtop table saw provided by his employer. As he was cutting a board lengthwise, his left hand slipped and slid into the saw's blade.

Osario sued Ryobi (now One World Technologies) in Massachusetts federal court for negligence and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. The essence of Osario's lawsuit was that the BTS15 benchtop table saw was defectively designed because it lacked a flesh-detection safety feature that would have stopped the blade automatically and limited the severity of his injuries.

As an expert, Osario produced Dr. Stephen Gass, inventor of "SawStop." The safety feature purportedly allows a table saw to sense when the blade comes into contact with flesh. When the sensor is triggered, SawStop is supposed to immediately stop the blade from spinning and cause it to retract into the body of the saw.

Now, Dr. Gass has been hawking SawStop since in 1999, but has not found any takers among the major manufacturers of table saws. The good doctor claims that he's being shunned by tool makers afraid of setting a new standard for table saw safety features.

Ryobi, on the other hand, argued at trial that SawStop doesn't function as well as Dr. Gass proclaims, particularly under the less than pristine conditions typically encountered at a construction site.

Moreover, Ryobi argued that adding SawStop to benchtop table saws would undercut portability and cost, the fundamental selling points for the BTS15 (then available from Home Depot for $179) and competing models.

The jury saw things Osario's way and awarded $1.5 million. This must have made Dr. Gass quite happy, enhancing his chances of finding a market for SawStop.

Ryobi, on the other hand, was miffed that it was being held liable for defective design when, from the manufacturer's point of view, Osario failed to show that SawStop was a feasible alternative design.

The 1st Circuit heard Ryobi's appeal and was not persuaded. In a decision issued yesterday, the federal court of appeals concluded that Osario satisfied his burden under Massachusetts product liability law.

"[W]e do not conclude that the added cost or increased weight of Osorio's proposed alternative design is fatal to his case as a matter of law," the court said. "It is the province of the jury to determine whether the relevant factors, properly balanced, suggest that a product's design is unreasonable."

Ryobi tried to argue that the jury's verdict represented the improper imposition of "categorical liability," essentially holding the manufacturer liable despite the absence of a conventional defect or a feasible safer alternative.

But the 1st Circuit didn't see the jury as venturing into foul territory with its verdict.

"Here, an alternative design was not only offered, but also discussed, examined, and debated. At the district court the parties explained and probed the merits of an alternative design incorporating the SawStop system. Ryobi repeatedly challenged Osorio's proposed design raising many of the arguments against SawStop it now raises on appeal, particularly on the issue of added weight. ...

"Just as we conclude that the evidence presented was sufficient to allow the case to reach the jury, it seems similarly plain that considering the evidence before it, the jury simply agreed with Osorio's case and found in his favor," the court said.

Published: Wed, Oct 19, 2011

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