Jury decision raises issues for manufacturers

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In 2004, Carlos Osorio was injured by a table saw while working as a flooring installer for a company in Medford, Mass.

The jury decision that resulted has rocked the tool industry and will, unless reversed, have serious implications for manufacturers, employers and consumers.

Osorio was “ripping” a piece of flooring on a job site, basically cutting it from end to end. His hand slipped and he lost his pinky finger and severely sliced two other fingers. The accident resulted in five surgeries and 95 occupational therapy visits.

An inspection found that the employer had removed two of the saw’s safety features, a splitter and a blade guard. What’s more, the saw was missing its rip fence, which guides a piece of wood through the blade.

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It was also the first time Osorio had ever used a table saw and he had received only cursory instructions from his employer.

Clearly, the employer deserved the bulk of the blame for the accident, and Osorio’s lawyer sought $250,000 in damages.

But the lawyer looked around and found a plaintiff with deeper pockets — the saw maker, Ryobi, and its parent company, One World Technologies.

While researching the case, Richard Sullivan, Osorio’s lawyer, found a video of a CNN story on a new type of table saw that could, remarkably, sense when it touched flesh and almost instantly stop the spinning blade and drop it below the table.

That technology had been developed in 2000 by inventor Steve Gass, who initially tried selling it to major tool companies, but who ultimately failed to reach agreement with them.

So he started his own company, SawStop, and his first saw became available in 2004.

After seeing the video, Sullivan turned his guns on One World Technologies.

He argued that the Ryobi saw was “inherently flawed” because it did not have Gass’ “flesh-sensing technology.”

Osorio’s case went to trial in February, and four weeks later a jury awarded him $1.5 million — six times what he had sought.

The jury was convinced that the Ryobi saw was defective because the company had not adopted Gass’ technology, and despite the owner having disabled its safety features.

Since then, the decision has raised a host of troubling questions.

First, it assumes every manufacturer could have reached an agreement with Gass to license his invention.

What if he had signed a deal with Delta? Should the other 10 makers of similar saws simply stop doing business?

Second, it assumes every manufacturer can immediately retool its entire line of saws to adopt every technological or safety innovation, which is a physical and financial impossibility.

Third, based on the jury’s decision, should every type of sawing tool now incorporate the SawSmart technology, from circular saws to chain saws?

Finally, what does such a decision mean for other industries? Must all carmakers incorporate radar brakes now found on some high-end vehicles that sense slower vehicles ahead and apply the brakes?

If it stands, the case will have far-reaching implications for manufacturers of all types, and relieve negligent owners of the responsibility to use products as designed.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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