Why do we really bring product liability injury claims? Most plaintiffs want to be financially compensated for personal injuries caused by a product retailer or manufacturer "seller" of a dangerous and defective product. Payment of money damages by an insurance company for ensuing liability is how our system of justice works. How many of us really care about safety in the world we live in? Where are the plaintiffs who are willing to put the concept of money damages aside purely for the greater good of protecting society?
In September of 2011 one such plaintiff came into our Southbury office. This client was a well respected New York City college professor, painter and historian. He had purchased a log caddy from Ocean State Job Lot, the product retailer, in Seymour, Connecticut. His plan was to store firewood at his home in Oxford, Connecticut. The purchase price of the product was a measly $39.99. Where do you think the product was made? You guessed it, China. So, what happened? Well, the client went to fill the log caddy with air and the two part nylon wheel exploded. The wheel, which resembled a two part small lawn mower or tractor type wheel, literally blew apart when the client when to a local Southbury, Connecticut gas station to fill the tire. The wheel assembly became a projectile lacerating the plaintiff's forehead after the nylon wheel was inflated with air. In fact, ironically, the forehead laceration matched up with the indentation seen in the split metal rim.
When the client came in to see me in my Southbury, Connecticut office my first thought was that the client was lucky that he didn't lose an eye. He only had inflated the tire with approximately 30 pounds of air, which was well within the tire/wheel air pressure rating. This product seemed unreasonably dangerous and defective under the Connecticut Product Liability Act. This would have to be proven. My next thought was that there was no definitive indication that the plaintiff would suffer a permanent injury requiring plastic surgery to the forehead. It was, however, too early to make a call on whether the laceration would require surgical revision. This would be a judgment call to be made by a plastic surgeon at a later date.
In any event, we moved forward. I advised the client that an engineer was needed to establish that the product was unreasonably dangerous and defective under Connecticut Product Liability Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-572m, et seq. The client had initially tried to get the product retailer Ocean State Jobbers, Inc. and the product distributor A- Bos Limited to accept responsibility for this dangerous and defective product. Both the retailer and the distributor denied responsibility with a "garden variety" denial letter. To the plaintiff's credit and at our insistence, the plaintiff hired George Torello Engineers of Essex, Connecticut to investigate whether this product had both design and manufacturing defects.
Mr. Torello personally came to our Southbury office to examine the wheel. He then took the companion wheel and ran a stress test on it to determine the air pressure needed to cause wheel fatigue. He also measured the metal gage used to make the wheel. Additionally, he examined the machined rim holes, the assembly and came up with an alternative safe design.
Mr. Torello's determined that the wheel had a design defect. The two part wheel should have been designed to handle 2.5 times the rated tire pressure without wheel distortion. The metal thickness as fabricated was too thin. He found the metal was 35% thinner adjacent to bolt holes. He also found that the wheel manufacturing process failed to insure that the wheel hub fit the split rim assembly snuggly, which was the intent of the design. Finally, he found a significant design and manufacturing defect as this wheel was design and constructed such that the area adjacent to the machined rim holes was not raised to disburse the load to insulate against wheel failure.
The most important finding Mr. Torello made was that the air filled nylon wheel design was later replaced after the fact by the manufacturer with a non inflatable foam wheel. This subsequent remedial change posed zero risk to a future log caddy purchaser. Mr. Torello made this discovery by visiting multiple Connecticut Ocean State Job Lot retail stores searching for a log caddy template well after the client's date of injury.
Mr. Torello also insulated the plaintiff's claim for the defense of comparative negligence. He did this by documenting a wheel industry standard of care that when inflated, the wheel should be able to handle two and one half times the rated wheel air pressure before exhibiting signs of fatigue leading to failure. One bone of contention in the case was that the plaintiff over inflated the product. This comparative negligence argument made by the liability carrier was later conceded in the negotiations by the carrier for Ocean State Job Lot after Mr. Torello's report was reviewed by an engineer on behalf of the insurance liability carrier.
The client's forehead laceration healed without the need for surgical revision. The manufacturer changed the product design. The client's case was settled with the product retailer and outsourcing agent. The client, who fronted the engineering investigation costs, made a statement to the retailer by taking the retailer on with a competent experienced civil engineer and a creative personal injury lawyer who understands product liability cases. This client had effectuated change in the consumer home product wheel appliance market. We need more plaintiff's willing to advocate for product safety. Thank you professor for having the courage of your convictions!