Recently, in , No. 10-1824 (1st Cir. October 5, 2011),the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of a table saw manufacturer’s motions for post-trial relief after it was hit with a $1.5 million verdict. In that case, the plaintiff was severely injured when his hand slipped and slid into the blade of a BTS 15 table saw manufactured by Ryobi. The saw was equipped with a blade guard and a guiding rip fence, but they had been removed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued Ryobi for negligence and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. After an eight day trial, the jury returned a verdict of $1.5 million. Ryobi moved for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. The district court denied the motions, and Ryobi appealed.
The plaintiff argued the saw was unacceptably dangerous due to a defective design. To support his claim, the plaintff relied primarily on the testimony of Dr. Stephen Gass. In 1999, Dr. Gass invented a mechanism known as “SawStop” which immediately stops a blade from spinning when it makes contact with human flesh. Dr. Gass pitched his product to a number of major table saw manufacturers, including Ryobi, but he didn’t catch any suitors.
Before we go any further, we must admit that we find this scenario perplexing on multiple levels. First, if SawStop has been shot down by every major table saw manufacturer, Dr. Gass was certainly motivated to stick it to Ryobi at trial. We can imagine the dollar signs flashing in the plaintiff’s head when he discovered Dr. Gass. A witness harnessing some beef with the defendant who will also testify to an alternative design? Sign him up. Second, if SawStop is so revolutionary, why have all of the table saw manufacturers turned it down? The plaintiff concocted the conspiracy theory that manufacturers avoided SawStop due to a collective agreement that if any of them adopted the technology, the others would face heightened liability exposure for not doing so. While it is not in the reported opinion, we hear they also presented evidence that Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio.
In reality, there may have been a more plausible explanation for not adopting SawStop. There was some dispute over whether a small benchtop table saw could properly absorb the force necessary to stop a rapidly spinning saw blade. Ryobi also questioned whether a saw equipped with SawStop could remain portable, a trait necessary for its many contractor customers. Further, the addition of SawStop would nearly double the cost of the saw. If that is not enough, Dr. Gass actually testified that SawStop’s flesh-detection system could be erroneously triggered when cutting wet or pressure-treated wood. These are all factors that Ryobi, and presumably other manufacturers, considered when deciding between the cover blade or adopting SawStop.
On appeal Ryobi argued that instead of presenting a viable alternative design, the plaintiff
set out to prove that the entire category of lightweight, inexpensive, benchtop table saws to which the BTS 15 belongs was defective, in part because the saws’ manufacturers have not incorporated flesh-detection braking systems into their designs.
The First Circuit acknowledged that “categorical liability” claims are generally impermissible. However, it noted that the defining characteristic of a categorical liability claim is the absence of an alternative design. Admittedly, the plaintiff clearly offered evidence of an alternative design. Should the alternative design really count when it has been unanimously rejected by the field? Even though there is that whole lingering conspiracy thing, its not like Ryobi was without reason for rejecting SawStop. Perhaps the more viable alternative design would be a saw without a removable blade guard a guiding rail – less expensive and doesn’t affect the integrity of the saw. Crazy theory, but then what would the plaintiff had done with his star witness?