Kendall Dunson, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, wrote an article for Law360 last month on workplace injuries. Kendall handles this type litigation for our firm. I am setting out his article below.
The headlines about on-the-job injuries usually focus on employers’ failings, and rightfully so. A quick internet news search shows employers coming under fire for a trench collapse that killed two people last year and for a boiler explosion that killed three workers at a box factory earlier this month. Employer failings are undoubtedly a factor when employees lose a finger, a limb or their lives. However, it is important to note how product liability impacts workers’ compensation cases and on-the-job safety.
Unfortunately, the examples of workers being injured on the job are numerous; again, all it takes is a simple news search. In the past few months, auto parts manufacturers in Alabama have come under fire for unsafe working conditions after a Bloomberg Businessweek article highlighted serious injury rates among the industry’s workers. The article features employees at auto parts manufacturers around the state who have had fingers and arms crushed in machines, have suffered third-degree burns after being engulfed in flames, or have suffered chemical burns after falling into a vat of acid. All this comes as Alabama tests its “New Detroit” nickname. According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, more than 160 automotive parts suppliers operate in Alabama, employing 25,000 Alabamians. The auto-manufacturing sector as a whole employs more than 50,000 people. Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield told the Birmingham Business Journal in 2015, “Alabama’s auto manufacturing sector is well-positioned for growth over the next decade[.]” That growth is unlikely to slow, but comes at a high price for employees. In 2010, workers in Alabama auto parts plants had “a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole,” the Bloomberg piece notes. The industry’s growth and high injury rate emphasize the importance of understanding the complexities of on-the-job injury cases and the compensation clients can receive.
One of the workers highlighted in the Bloomberg piece, Regina Allen Elsea, 20, of Five Points, Alabama, entered a robotic machine in June 2016 at auto parts manufacturer Ajin USA’s plant, where she was a temporary employee, to try to fix a malfunction. Several other employees had tried and – fortunately for them – failed to fix the machine after a maintenance crew never showed up to make repairs and production came to a standstill. To her ultimate detriment, Elsea apparently knew what she was doing because the machine began functioning while she was still inside, crushing her. She died days later from her injuries. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Ajin USA $2.5 million for serious and willful safety violations, meaning OSHA felt the employer knowingly failed to comply or acted with plain indifference to employee safety. The company is contesting OSHA’s findings.
In the above case, we expect to include the machine’s manufacturer as a Defendant along with Joon LLC, d/b/a Ajin USA, the custodian of the equipment. Ajin USA’s failure to provide a safe working environment in accordance with OSHA regulations and the machine manufacturer’s failure to provide adequate guarding and safety mechanisms led to the unnecessary death of Regina Elsea. This is often the case. On-the-job injury cases are inextricably intertwined with product liability. Investigating any machine or product involved in an on-the-job injury is in the best interest of a client. What may initially appear to be a workers’ compensation claim may actually turn out to be a case involving a dangerous product or piece of equipment. This is especially useful because workers’ compensation benefits are usually capped, limiting the amount of compensation a client can receive without a third-party claim. The additional claim could be a product liability suit against a machine’s manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers or any others who made the product available to the public.
Designers and manufacturers have a responsibility to use accepted industry practices to make their products safe. For example, microwaves are designed with doors because the designer and manufacturer knew they must find a way to protect consumers from the radiation released by the appliance. Microwaves do not start if the door is open for that reason. Just as microwaves were designed and manufactured to reduce health risks, the same should be true of machines used in the manufacturing process. What safety mechanisms could have saved Regina Elsea? She would still be alive if the machine did not originally malfunction or if it included a mechanism to prevent it from operating when a person is near. An expert witness, such as an engineer who has designed a similar machine or designed safety mechanisms for a similar machine, would be able to explain what safety precautions should have been included to properly protect workers from harm.
In my experience with on-the-job injuries, safety devices often are seen as a slowdown in the manufacturing process, and for the auto parts manufacturers, time is money. Under their delivery system, a parts manufacturer can be fined thousands of dollars each minute the order is late to an automaker’s production plant. The stress on the production timeline means safety devices are often bypassed or removed, if they were ever even in place. Due to the rush, employees are often needlessly exposed to serious hazards that could easily be prevented by simply changing the design of a robot. A year before Regina Elsea’s death, an OSHA representative visited executives at Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motor Co. to stress the importance of workplace safety in their automotive plants and in their auto parts suppliers’ plants because otherwise lives would be lost. Clearly, that is absolutely the case.
However, for defective machines that contribute to on-the job injuries, the warnings are rarely given before someone gets hurt. Therefore, filing a third-party claim not only helps your client, but could save other workers’ lives – or at least give them an opportunity to be safe while doing their jobs.
If you need more information on any aspect of workplace litigation, contact Kendall Dunson at 800-898-2034 or by email at Kendall.Dunson@beasleyallen.com. He will be glad to talk with you.
Source: Kendall Dunson wrote the above article for Law360 and it appeared on April 21, 2017.
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