Cleveland Attorneys for Table Saw Injuries and Sawstop Technology

In 2009, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) conducted a survey of stationary saw-related injuries occurring between January 1, 2007, and December 31, 2008 that were treated in one of the hospital emergency departments in the CPSC's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). According to the study, an estimated 67,300 stationary saw-related injuries occur each year, with an estimated injury cost of more than $2.36 billion per year.

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Eighty-nine percent of these injuries were to the fingers and 7 percent of them to the hands. After a doctor was consulted, 66 percent were lacerations (severe cuts), 12 percent were fractures, 12 percent were amputations, and 9 percent were avulsions (a cut to the point of becoming partially-detached).

Forty-one percent of these injuries were caused by a dangerous phenomenon known as kickback. Kickback occurs when a piece of wood is unexpectedly thrown back at the person operating the table saw. When a table saw is in use, the blade spins toward the person operating the table saw. If the blade spun away from the operator, then the wood would not cut but would instead be shot away from the operator. As shown in the image below, as the back of the blade rises, it causes an initial lift.

When the blade reaches the top of the arc, that vertical lift turns into a horizontal thrust before turning downward. As the wood is pushed through the blade, the back part of the blade can sometimes grip the wood, causing the wood to lift upward and fly out of control toward the operator.

This is very dangerous. Considering the average speed of a table saw is a little less than 150 mph, even with interference from the wood, the saw can still hurl objects over 100 mph. And when the saw causes the wood to fly out of control, the fingers and hands maneuvering the wood can also fly out of control, often contacting the blade in the process. Accordingly, in the CPSC study, when kickback was the cause of the injury, the operator's hand was pulled into the saw in 65 percent of the cases. This is why kickback is probably the greatest fear for table saw operators.

SAWSTOP TECHNOLOGY

In 1999, Dr. Stephen Gass invented the SawStop, something that, in his words, could prevent the "vast majority" of these table saw injuries. The Sawstop is flesh-detecting technology. It sends an electrical signal through the blade of the table saw. This signal is monitored, and if the SawStop detects a change in the signal, the automatic braking system is activated, which causes the blade to stop within five milliseconds. Wood does not activate SawStop because wood is not a good conductor of electricity. But the human body is a much better conductor. So if the operator's finger contacts the blade, the SawStop recognizes the change in the current and activates the braking system.

INDUSTRY RELUCTANCE

This seemingly revolutionary technology is not well-taken by the major table saw manufacturers. Almost none of these manufacturers incorporate flesh-detecting technology into their table saws. Manufacturers cite three reasons for not incorporating this technology.

First and most importantly, the SawStop is costly. Adding SawStop technology would add about $100-$150 in additional costs per table saw, and when a table saw costs about $175, that increase in cost would have a huge impact on production and sales. Second, the SawStop would make the ordinary, and generally portable, table saw much heavier and harder to move. Finally, SawStop has design problems of its own. The SawStop is prone to malfunction when cutting wet or pressure-treated wood, which can be significant because contractors are likely exposed to the elements and rough treatment.

OSARIO V. ONE WORLD TECHS., INC., 659 F.3d 81 (1st Cir. 2011)

Carlos Osorio was a floor installer in Massachusetts. On April 19, 2005, Osario's hands slipped while cutting a piece of floor board with a table saw, badly injuring four fingers on his left hand. Osario brought a products liability claim against the table saw manufacturer, claiming that the manufacturer was negligent and breached the implied warranty of merchantability. Osario argued that the table saw was unreasonably dangerous because it failed to incorporate SawStop technology.


The case went to jury, and even though Osario only asked for $250,000, the jury awarded Osario $1.5 million. Although Osario was found to be 35 percent to blame for the accident, that was irrelevant because, in addition to the negligence claim, the jury also found the manufacturer liable for a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.

After trial, the manufacturer moved for judgment as a matter of law, which was denied by the trial court. The manufacturer later appealed, arguing that Osario failed to provide sufficient evidence of a design defect by failing to prove a feasible alternative existed.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals, applying Massachusetts law, rejected this argument and found sufficient evidence of a defective design. Massachusetts courts follow the Second Restatement of Torts for warranty liability claims. And under the Second Restatement, to satisfy the implied warranty of merchantability, the manufacturer must design products so that they are "fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used."

"A product is 'reasonably fit' for its purposes if the design prevents the 'reasonably foreseeable risks' attending the product's use in that setting." A reasonably fit product does not have to be a risk-free product, however. A product that creates a foreseeable risk of harm may still be reasonably fit. The true question is whether the risk was "unreasonable."

In determining what is "unreasonable," courts look to the following factors:

[1] the gravity of the danger posed by the challenged design;
[2] the likelihood that such danger would occur;
[3] the mechanical feasibility of a safer alternative design;
[4] the financial cost of an improved design; and
[5] the adverse consequences to the product and to the consumer that would result from an alternative design.

A plaintiff is not required to prove all of these factors as a part of her prima facie case. Rather, a jury must weigh them all accordingly.

The manufacturer argued that Osario failed to present evidence of a feasible, cost-effective alternative, and because no feasible alternative was presented, Osario failed to prove a design defect. But the First Circuit noted that Osario was not required to present evidence of a feasible alternative. The alternative's feasibility is just one factor weighed by the jury. The jury was free to give more weight to the other factors. Accordingly, a reasonable juror could find that the safety benefits provided by SawStop technology outweighed the costs.

SUBSEQUENT LITIGATION

After the Osario case, table saw litigation skyrocketed. Indeed, it was national legal news when a federal judicial panel declined to join 42 different lawsuits regarding the failure of various table saw manufacturers to incorporate SawStop technology into their table saws.

CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION RULEMAKING

SawStop technology is at the center of an ongoing rulemaking by the CPSC. In 2003, SawStop filed a petition with the agency, and in 2011, the CPSC issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) for regulations that would require table saws to meet new performance standards aimed at preventing finger amputations and injuries from contact with spinning blades. The CPSC now plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking by October 2015.