$1,000,000 Settlement – Product Liability

IGNITION WHILE CLEANING ELECTROSTATIC SPRAY PAINTER – SEVERE BURNS TO ARMS, CHEST, BACK AND LEGS.

Monmouth County, NJ

This was a products liability action in which the male plaintiff in his 50’s, who was standing next to a co-worker who was cleaning an industrial electrostatic spray painter by flushing solvent through the hose into a bucket in a sink, contended that the spray painting device was defective. The plaintiff contended that the equipment should have contained an interlock which would prevent it from being cleaned if the high voltage component of the power supply, which was used in the spray painting of metal, was inadvertently activated during the cleaning process. The plaintiff contended that the high voltage component resulted in the build up of the “electrical potential” which caused a spark which in turn ignited solvent vapors that had built up in the area of the sink. The plaintiff further contended that warnings supplied by the equipment manufacturer were inadequate. The plaintiff contended that he sustained third degree burns over 39% of his body including the arms, chest back and legs.

The evidence disclosed that the electrostatic paint equipment is often used to paint metal and that it comes equipped with a high voltage component which facilitates even coating on metal. The investigating police officer had determined that the high voltage power source was activated when he inspected the device after accident. The plaintiff’s expert engineer contended that the use of the high voltage power supply when using the solvent was dangerous because the solvent was more likely to build-up an electrical charge which could result in a spark and fire.

The expert contended that the machine should have had an interlock to prevent the high voltage power supply from operating while the machine was being cleaned. The defendant denied that the product was defective or that such an interlock was necessary. The defendant further contended that the warnings were adequate. The plaintiff maintained that the warnings on the machine were not sufficiently clear and were not placed in a conspicuous location.

The defendant further contended that it had offered a training program and that the employer failed to have the plaintiff and co-employee take part in this program. The plaintiff countered that if such a course was necessary, the defendant should have placed warnings on the equipment that uncertified persons should not be permitted to use the machine. The plaintiff also contended that the machine could have been rendered much safer without undue cost by providing an interlock and that in view of the failure of the defendant to do so, its reliance on warnings should not be accepted. The plaintiff suffered third degree burns over 39% of his body, including the arms, chest, back and legs. The plaintiff contended that he required a one month hospitalization during which he underwent regular debridements.

The plaintiff maintained that the procedures were painful despite the use of painkilling medication. The plaintiff related that he missed approximately one year from work. The plaintiff contended that the permanent scarring is particularly severe and that it is clearly permanent in nature. The plaintiff also contended that the skin has a mottled and puckered appearance. The plaintiff maintained that he will suffer relatively minor restriction of motion in the non-dominant arm permanently. The plaintiff contended that he suffered a very significant post- traumatic depression and required some months of psychotherapy. This condition essentially resolved. The plaintiff is married. The case settled prior to trial for a total of $1,000,000. The defendant paint sprayer manufacturer had contributed $700,000. The plaintiff had also contended that the solvent itself was defective because of mislabeling which reflected that the solvent was “combustible,” rather than “flammable.” The plaintiff contended that the solvent was, in fact, flammable which reflected that it had a lower flash point and that flammable products would not be appropriate for use when cleaning the paint sprayer. The defendant solvent manufacturer contributed $150,000. Finally, the plaintiff had also named the renter of the industrial uniform, contending that the combination of cotton and polyester of which uniform was made was susceptible to melting as it burned and that cotton, which would not melt and which comprised the plaintiff’s pants, would be less dangerous. This defendant contributed $150,000.

COMMENTARY

The defendant had contended that the warnings were adequate and further stressed that it had offered a safety program to the employer which trained workers to avoid dangers. The plaintiff, who would have argued that the warnings were not sufficiently clear or conspicuously placed, would also have endeavored to undermine the defendant’s case by arguing that the defendant should have taken greater steps to ensure participation in the training program such as placing warnings on the machine that uncertified individuals should not use it. Moreover, the plaintiff would have strenuously argued that the hazard could have been easily and effectively prevented through the use of an interlock which would prevent the equipment from being cleaned through flushing solvent through the system when the high voltage component was activated. In this regard, the plaintiff would have argued that since the defendant could, as a practical matter, have readily made the equipment much safer, obviating the need to solely rely on warnings, the safety program and/or warnings provided should not relieve the defendant of liability.

Regarding damages, the plaintiff would have argued damages in a low key manner, preferring to permit the severe scarring from the burn injuries to speak for themselves. Additionally, the plaintiff, who would have briefly shown the actual scars to the jury, had also planned on introducing the photographs without initially having them passed among the jury members, permitting them to view the photographs for the first time during deliberations, thereby endeavoring to minimize the chances of the effect of the photographs being diluted by repeated observations.

Finally, as has often been noted, traumatic incidents such as the ignition which occurred in this case leading to extensive burn injuries can often create a very strong jury response.

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