Table saw suit nets $1.5M verdict

A recent verdict resulting from a table saw injury raises the issue of whether stricter safety regulations will be imposed on manufacturers. A compelling factor in the case involved SawStop's blade-stopping device, which was not on the saw that caused the injury.

Carlos Osorio of Malden, Mass., severely injured his fingers several years ago in a table saw accident while laying hardwood floors. In March, Osorio was awarded $1.5 million through a jury verdict that found One World Technologies Inc. of Anderson, S.C., maker of Ryobi saws, guilty of negligence in manufacturing and a breach of warranty of merchantability.

"The jury found for us on both counts," says Osorio's lawyer, Richard Sullivan, of Sullivan and Sullivan in Wellesley Heights, Mass. "They found that the saw was defective."

Sullivan filed a lawsuit in 2006 in U.S. District Court in Boston. He says that even after multiple surgeries and medical bills reaching six figures, Osorio's hand is permanently fixed in one position because of two severed tendons. Osorio, now 30, is a Columbian native who had a translator throughout the trial.

Laws supporting the verdict

In Massachusetts, a comparative negligence standard is used, which means if a consumer himself is determined to be 50 percent or less negligent, he can still recover, Sullivan explains. In the Osorio case, the jury assigned 35 percent negligence to Osorio, and 65 percent negligence to Ryobi. But because the saw was also deemed defective, the negligence percentage of the user didn't matter. The breach of warranty of merchantability is a form of strict product liability, making the manufacturer liable for damages regardless of a product user's own mistake.

"If it was only a negligence claim, it would have been reduced by 35 percent. But because it was a defective saw - according to the jury - they found a breach of warranty of merchantability, then there is no reduction for negligence."

Ryobi had 28 days following the veridict to file an appeal. But by mid-April, the clerk's office said no appeal had been filed.

"We don't think there was an appealable error here. [The defense] had a full opportunity to put in their evidence. If anything, the judge bent over backwards to allow the defendants to put in whatever they wanted and was somewhat restrictive in terms of what we could get in, so I don't see any grounds for an appeal here," says Sullivan.

"We are evaluating the results with our lawyers, and evaluating how to proceed," says Jason Swanson, a spokesman for One World Technologies, in a prepared statement. "Notwithstanding the outcome of this trial and any possible appeal, we remain confident that the saw which was the subject of this lawsuit was well-designed and manufactured with all due consideration for the needs and safety of the consumer."

The Home Depot, where the saw was purchased, was also a defendant, but the jury decided it was not liable. Sullivan says that finding is inconsistent with Massachusetts law, which basically says that if a saw is found defective under implied warranty, the seller of the saw is liable without regard to fault. If there is an appeal, the plaintiff's legal team will raise that issue. It would not have an impact on the amount set in the verdict.

SawStop's involvement

Videos of SawStop's safety device were shown at the trial and testimony was provided by inventor Stephen Gass.

Gass testified that his technology could be put on a smaller saw, such as the Ryobi BTS 15 involved in the accident. Gass explained that Ryobi had a chance to patent the device and signed a license agreement in 2002. When he noticed a typo in the agreement and called Ryobi back for a correction, the delays began, and after several attempts, Ryobi never followed through.

"The basic theory of the case was that the saw should have had something like SawStop - either SawStop or something that the industry has developed on its own to prevent such an injury. The question in debate was whether SawStop would have prevented the injury and whether SawStop was technically viable with the saw. The jury found that it was and that it would have prevented the injury," says Gass in an interview with Woodshop News.

"Therefore, the design of the bench-top table saw was defective because it did not have a system to protect the user in the event of contact. That's a big deal in terms of the statement this sends to manufacturers about making their saws reasonably safe."

The phrase "reasonably safe" comes down to an economic test, explains Gass. It wouldn't make sense to put a $1 million device on a $100 saw to prevent injuries. The test is whether the cost is more to prevent the injury than the cost of the injuries that would be prevented.

Initiation of claim

While Osorio brought this claim himself, his company's workers' compensation insurer in Massachusetts had experienced enough table saw injuries to hire his legal team as a third-party plaintiff. The insurer will get back whatever the dollar amount paid in medical bills and the plaintiff's out-of-work expenses from the verdict amount.

The plaintiff's co-counsel, George Carpinello, explained that workers' compensation insurers are looking for legal help with similar claims. "Some of our clients, five major insurance companies around the country, have said enough is enough. Steven Gass introduced this technology to Ryobi back in the fall of 2000. And Ryobi reviewed the technology briefly, negotiated with Gass for over a year, signed a contract with Gass to use the technology and then never did anything."

Ryobi offered depositions at trial from their representatives. Gass and the plaintiff's legal team both said these depositions revealed that Ryobi representatives pointed fingers at each other about the contract not being put into effect.

Carpinello adds that because of the lawsuit, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a rule requiring flesh-detection technology on table saws.

"That process has not formally been initiated, but we know that last fall the Power Tool Institute (a group of power tool manufacturers) went back to the CPSC and urged them not to adopt the rule; and Gass went down and urged them to adopt the rule. Our understanding is that the commission directed the staff to begin the rulemaking process, although the rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register."

More suits?

Gass says the precedent being formed is one he's foreseen for a long time.

"I think this establishes what I have thought all along and that is that saws that don't incorporate SawStop being sold today are unreasonably dangerous and defective and should not be sold. I don't think it is ethical or responsible for a manufacturer today to produce a table saw without something to protect the user beyond the standard guards," says Gass.

Sullivan confirmed that he and Carpinello are involved in approximately 60 pending lawsuits throughout the U.S. against table saw manufacturers for failing to adopt the SawStop blade-stopping device. Half of the pending lawsuits involve Ryobi.

"We're working mainly on suits against Ryobi, which is by far the biggest, because Ryobi is a big seller and a lot of these accidents occur on the lower-end saws," he says.

"The only reasons these [table saw] lawsuits exist is we have documented technology [SawStop] that says you put your finger into a blade for whatever reason and that blade is going to retract such that you're going to have a minor scratch in 99 percent of the cases ... and manufacturers presented with that technology say they're not going to use it."

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.

Comments (13) Comments are closed
13 Monday, 30 May 2011 02:37
Chris Heavens
Some of the comments are comical. If these people were around when car companies were sued for not having seatbelts, they would have defended the car companies and said that "the driver needs to watch where he is going." If there is a safety device that can save billions of dollars in medical bills and lost work productivity, and also spare human suffering, why not use it? Could it be that the manufacturers have made a calculation that it will cost less to defend lawsuits than to install the safety device? Until the cost of lawsuits exceeds the cost of using the device, the carnage will continue.
12 Tuesday, 05 April 2011 16:57
Brian Six
Anyone working in the industry whether professionally or as a hobby knows the danger of any mechanical device. Or for that matter non-mechanical(as in a hammer). The next thing you know they will say "that the hammer didn't see that my thumb was in the way and stop me from hitting myself." The table saw would be defective if the saw blade flew out and cut his head off. If the saw blade spun in the proper direction and the rip fence stayed in place then the table saw worked as designed. I bet the guy didn't have his blade guard in use, didn't use a push stick when necessary, didn't use his anti-kick back device, didn't use a feather board or something to keep pressure on the piece without using his hand, etc.... Was the operator highly trained on the table saw? Bet not. It is a simple unfortunate mistake of the operator. Anyone who knows these devices well would agree. Anyone who doesn't know them would award 1.5 in their ignorance.
11 Wednesday, 26 January 2011 04:33
Jim Lane
About 30,000 persons are taken to hospital emergency rooms each year because of table saw accidents, which indicates that table saws have inherent safety problems and humans have a difficult time avoiding having accidents with them. Up until the time each of them had their accident, they probably thought they were using the saw safely. My guess is that most of those people now wish that they had a safer saw and would have gladly paid more for one. They might even have welomed safety standards forcing them to buy one.
10 Monday, 08 November 2010 16:54
I don't see anybody complaining about the inventor of air bags making too much money.
9 Tuesday, 19 October 2010 06:42
Too many unknowns regarding the accident to make a judgment but saws are INHERENTLY dangerous. People need to take responsibility for their own actions!!! Too many lawyers looking for a quick buck !!!
8 Friday, 13 August 2010 13:50
The free market system always prevails in the end. Right or wrong, eventually enough of these product liability law suits will force the industry to adopt this type of technology (They are all probably working on their own version as we speak). Once it is adopted by the major producers of these saws then the technology will start to drop in price as competition and economies of scale take over. In the end the woodshop will be a safer place for the responsible and the irresponsible. And yeah the price goes up but what else is new.
7 Thursday, 12 August 2010 17:27
Roy Turner
My take: the saw was rendered unsafe by the person who was responsible for it(employer). The operator was not properly trained by his employer, who should be liable for the injuries done to his employee. To me, this is no different than turning an untrained employee loose with a forklift in a warehouse full of people; if he runs over someone, do they sue the forklift manufacturer or the people who were responsible for ensuring the employee was trained? How much are you willing to bet that if the Sawstop technology becomes required for future saws, someone will find a way to make the saw operational after it has been activated the first time? If someone gets hurt after that then the Sawstop folks will be paying just like Ryobi is now.
6 Friday, 02 July 2010 15:52
John Street
I wonder if Mr. Gass is prepared for the lawsuit against HIS company when one of his [apparently failure-proof] products fails to function as advertised.

And can you say, "Conflict of interest"?
5 Thursday, 01 July 2010 18:36
joe pawlowski
I agree with the comment made about the guy that invented the saw stop. He stands to make a great deal of money if all manufacturers are required to put this on their saws. On the other hand safety is one of the most important parts of the wood working process. It is unfortunate that this indvidual received his injuries, but the rest of the wood working world should not have to be penalized for them.
Perhaps the consume product council and OSHA should make rules dealing with accidents that happen to individuals that are working for someone else. As a private citizen I should have the right given to me by the constitution to life, liberty and the persuit of wood workin happiness with the tools of my choice. Not tools the cost more because some inventor wants to make more money then necessary. If this saw stop is so important then the government should compell the inventor to supply it at a reasonable cost for the safety of others. On second thought he believes that this technology is this important to the safety of the public then as a humanitarian gesture he should be willing to provide it for a fair price to all the saw manufactures for the good of the greater publlic.
4 Thursday, 24 June 2010 17:09
Andy Roff
I have gotten my hands caught in a planer and a bandsaw. Both my fault. I'm with Greg Kester, it would interesting to find out why his fingers were in the way.
I blame no one but myself for my injuries and it's a shame our judicial system has thru past practice allowed for people to pass there own stupidity onto others.
If you don;t know what your doing then don't. If you de know then it's your responsability to do it safely.
Appeal the verdict and put an end to easy outs
3 Thursday, 03 June 2010 21:46
Greg Kester
The gentleman who invented the SawStop believes that saws being sold today are unreasonably dangerous and defective and should not be sold. Not sure I would have expected him to say anything but that. These are the same saws that have been on the market for decades. Any reasonable person knows and can see there is inherent danger involved in operating a table saw. I would love to know exactly what transpired that the guy's hand ended up in the blade Next time I have to buy a saw for 10 times what it's worth I'll chalk it up to some jurors in Mass.
2 Monday, 31 May 2010 13:58
john hall
I am sick of these kinds of lawsuits. All you are stating is what safety devices are out there. Most saw accidents are results of stupid mistakes.
If it cuts wood ,it cuts fingers. I hope this gets overturned.
1 Thursday, 20 May 2010 00:15
Stan Morgan
I have mixed feeling about this. If the saw was defective, then it is appropiate to rule this way but if I as a consumer purchase a table saw that is less expensive and does not have the latest safety devices, then I should not blame it on the manufacturer, I need to take some responsiblity for my actions. It is sad that our society thinks that we are no longer responsible for our actions and everyone else needs to watch out for me so I can be irresponsible but yet it is not my fault. Also, does this mean that if I am a school district or the owner of a business and I do not supply this type of table saw, I can now be held responsible for someone getting hurt? Sad condition of affairs.