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$11.62 Million Judgment for Products Liability Claim - Asphalt Melter-Applicator Machine

The plaintiff suffered catastrophic injuries when an asphalt melter-applicator machine, which he had raised with a detachable jack, fell onto his head and crushed his skull. He survived, but he has significant injuries and is permanently and totally disabled. His wife, who is his full-time caretaker, and his two daughters, who were 13 and 17 at the time he was injured, made claims for loss of consortium.

The Magma melter-applicator machine is used to seal cracks in asphalt. The machine comes with a jack assembly. One part of the assembly is welded to the A-frame of the trailer, and the second part of the assembly is a free-standing, swivel crank, detachable jack. The part welded to the trailer is called the “pivot mount.” The part affixed to the free-standing jack, used to connect the jack to the trailer, is called the “pivot tube.” A “pivot pin” is used to secure the pivot-tube to the pivot-mount. Thus, while a portion of the jack assembly is not detachable, the actual jack, which is used to raise and lower the machine, is detachable and can be replaced.

Cimline, Inc. originally manufactured and distributed the Magma melter-applicator machine. At some point, before the machine at issue in this case was manufactured, Garlock Equipment Co., Inc., purchased Cimline and began manufacturing the machine, in conjunction with Cimline, which continued to manufacturer a portion of the jack assembly. Specifically, it welded the fixed portion of the jack assembly to the trailer.

Once manufactured, the fully assembled melter-applicator machine would be stamped with a Cimline label and distributed by Cimline and Garlock as part of Plymouth Industries, Inc.’s line of products.

The free-standing jack that originally came with the machine purchased by the plaintiff in 2009 was manufactured by Cequent Industries, Inc. and distributed by Pioneer Rim and Wheel Co., Inc. There was evidence at trial that Cequent provided certain warnings relative to the use of the jack and machine, which were supposed to accompany the machine at the time of sale. Those warnings were not sent with the machine by the defendants at the time of sale.

In May 2013, the plaintiff was performing seasonal maintenance on the machine with an employee. He was using the welded component of the jack-assembly with a different, but compatible, free-standing jack. Cimline does not warn users that only specific replacement parts may be used with the jack-assembly. Indeed, there was evidence at trial that the jack Mr. Goodrich was using at the time of the incident was the same or similar to the original jack in all material respects, that there was nothing inherently dangerous or unreasonable about using the replacement jack, and that it was an acceptable jack to use with the machine. The jack assembly had no mechanism insuring that the pivot pin was inserted properly prior to activation of the jack, and the pivot pin apparently was not inserted or slipped out. When Mr. Goodrich wrenched the oil-plug, the melter-applicator machine slipped off of the jack and fell on top of him.

Plaintiffs presented the opinion of a liability expert, Branford Pickett, PE, at trial, who opined that the machine was dangerously and defectively designed by Cimline and Garlock and distributed. Specifically, the melter-applicator is designed in such a way that it poses a crush hazard to the individual servicing the machine. The design uses a pivot pin and a tether to attach the pivot pin. The tether connection is subject to failure, and the pin may become lost, misplaced or detached subjecting the individual to a crush injury, precisely what occurred here. Moreover, the design allows the jack, a critical component of the machine, to be completely removed from the frame and reattached improperly, again subjecting an individual performing maintenance to injury. Finally, the jack is required to support the front end of the melter but is placed off-center, on the side of the A-frame. Thus, even when the jack is attached, the machine is unstable and even minor force can cause the machine to rock.

A jack connection to the machine’s chassis that used a permanent (welding or riveting) or semi-permanent (bolted with adhesive locking) attachment would have rendered the design safe.This was a feasible and inexpensive alternative.

Mr. Pickett further opined that each of the defendants were negligent in failing to warn purchases of the dangers inherent in the use of the machine. The manufacturer instructions and warnings for the melter-applicator are silent as to the crush hazard associated with incorrect connection of the jack to the melter-applicator frame, and the warnings from the jack manufacturer were not provided to the user at all.

As a result of the crush injury, the plaintiff suffered serious and permanent injuries, including a significant traumatic brain injury. The plaintiffs presented the testimony of neuropsychologist Neal McGrath, PhD at the trial of the case on the issue of the plaintiff’s traumatic brain injury and his total and permanent disability. The plaintiffs also presented the testimony of an economist, Neville Lee, PhD., on the value of Mr. Goodrich’s economic damages.

The plaintiff also alleged a loss of consortium on behalf of Mr. Goodrich’s wife and daughters.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $6,500,000, his wife, $750,000, and each of his daughters, $500,000.

The defendants appealed the judgment alleging errors of law at trial, and for the reasons that they had argued previously, that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Plaintiffs served a demand letter pursuant to G.L. c. 93A/176 alleging that the insurance company, AIG, knowingly and willfully violated the statute, both in their actions regarding the processing of the claim and in failing to settle the claim when liability and damages were reasonably clear. AIG settled the underlying claim as well as the G.L. c. 93A claim while the appeal was pending.

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