Recently, an Alabama man filed suit against Sears Roebuck & Co. after losing several fingers while operating a Craftsman table saw. According to a report from the Cook County Record, Victor Ingram’s fingers came in contact with the saw’s blade while he was “acting reasonably and exercising all due care for his own safety.” As a result of the accident, Ingram had to have multiple fingers amputated on his left hand. The suit alleges that the table saw was known to Sears (which owns Craftsman) to be dangerous when it was designed and manufactured. Specifically, Ingram alleges that Sears knew of available technology which could better guard the blade and which could trigger the blade to shut off if the blade made contact with flesh. However, the table saw did not incorporate such technology. The suit contains causes of action for product liability, negligence, and breach of implied warranty of fitness.
At first glance, this suit appears to be the prototypical “open and obvious” case. Obviously, the purpose of the table saw is to cut wood. The risk of injury from getting one’s fingers too close to a moving saw blade would certainly be known to the reasonable person. We question how Ingram could have possibly been “exercising all due care for his own safety” if he allowed his fingers to touch the blade in the first place. On the other hand, the allegations are not that Sears failed to warn of such an injury, but that there was available technology which could have prevented it that Sears neglected to use. Back in 2011, we wrote on a similar suit involving Ryobi and its failure to incorporate the “SawStop” technology. In that case, Dr. Stephen Gass, who invented “SawStop,” testified on behalf of the plaintiff that he had pitched his technology to a number of table saw manufacturers, but did not get any suitors. In case you were wondering, that case ended with a $1.5 million verdict for the plaintiff.
The question becomes whether “SawStop” or similar technology is a viable alternative design? Are we going to establish that an entire category of inexpensive table saws are defective because they don’t incorporate the technology? Has technology now caught up to product liability principles such that what was once “open and obvious” is now a design defect? For the record, SawStop now manufactures its own line of table saws.