Defense Outgunned in Osorio Tablesaw Lawsuit
Isn’t it a Matter of Common Sense?
You may recall my first post on the Carlos Osorio tablesaw lawsuit or my most recent post describing how I think the plaintiff’s attorneys won their case. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’m now going to talk about the defense team’s strategy and a number of interesting tidbits I discovered in the second half of the nine-day trial transcript.
The defense team representing power tool maker Ryobi and its parent company, One World Technologies, presented its case in three points: First, without using a guard or even a rip fence, Osorio was operating the saw in an unsafe manner and the saw maker couldn’t possibly anticipate his dangerous methods. Second, SawStop technology was unproven and perhaps unreliable in a job-site environment where bad weather and rough-and-tumble treatment are commonplace. Finally, adding flesh-sensing, blade-braking technology would make benchtop saws prohibitively large, heavy, and expensive.
More on the Controversial Tablesaw Lawsuit
Using a tablesaw without a guard or rip fence would seem ridiculous to most tablesaw users. So it’s logical the defense team would argue that Osorio “knowingly, voluntarily and unreasonably used a product he knew to be defective and dangerous, and as a result was injured.” But the judge advised in his jury instructions that for this to be true, the plaintiff (Osorio) must have known of the saw’s danger when the safety features were removed, but used the product anyway.
It wasn’t tough for the plaintiff to beat this argument as Osorio freely admitted he was unfamiliar with tablesaws and power tools generally and he had seen his co-workers use the saw without a guard and without a fence many times before. The plaintiff also showed Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that discuss problems with conventional (all-in-one) tablesaw guards like the one fitted to the Ryobi BTS 15. Interestingly, this is the same guard the power tool industry defended in a previous CPSC investigation. The same report cited figures indicating that this style of guard is removed and never reinstalled by more than 70 percent of users. I’d call this strike one.
In my opinion, the second point, which argued that SawStop wasn’t ready for the rigors of the job site, was the defense’s best hope, but this argument was also easily refuted. Expert witnesses described the many tests that indicated SawStop technology was robust. They had test data from SawStop and the CPSC and video clips of minimally injured hot dogs to reinforce the point. (SawStop often demonstrates its flesh-sensing, blade braking technology using hot dogs as stand-ins for fingers.) They also reminded the jury that SawStop saws have now been in service for several years and have saved hundreds of fingers from amputation.
Who’s Gonna Pay for This?
The defense team then talked about the difficulties SawStop has with some material, especially wet pressure-treated lumber, causing false trips of the $80 blade cartridge. Of course, the plaintiff’s attorneys pointed out to the jury that hardwood flooring installers work inside and wouldn’t have reason to cut soaking wet pressure-treated lumber. The defense then talked about the false sense of security created by technology like SawStop and the resulting increased potential for injury. But the plaintiff’s attorney retorted that air bags and anti-lock brakes don’t cause people to drive recklessly. Strike two.
Watch Fine Woodworking Put a SawStop Through its Paces
The defense’s final point suggesting that flesh-sensing technology would make benchtop saws too heavy, too large, and too expensive was also easy to dispute. The defense team described Bosch’s efforts to test flesh-sensing, blade braking technology. Apparently, sometime in 2002 Bosch fitted a SawStop or SawStop-like system to one of its model 4000 portable saws. The saw survived four or five brake activations before the key that connects the motor shaft to the transmission sheared off from repeated rapid braking. The defense indicated that since the brake system ultimately destroyed a pro-duty saw, a smaller less-expensive saw like the Ryobi would also be destroyed, perhaps sooner.
But I think the plan backfired when the plaintiff’s attorney showed the same Bosch benchtop saw to the jury. He pointed out that while the Bosch saw is larger and 30 pounds heavier than the Ryobi model Osorio was using, it’s still relatively inexpensive and portable. And it did very well when tested with SawStop technology right off the shelf. And it’s likely that the jury thought a sheared motor shaft key was an easy engineering problem to solve. Strike three.
Comments left by several readers of previous blog posts on this subject indicated the defense attorneys were likely hired by a product liability insurance company and may have been retained because of more-reasonable fees rather than their skill as lawyers. Based on the transcript, it seems to me that the defense was indeed outgunned. The plaintiff’s attorney seemed to anticipate and rebuke the defense’s every move and it seems totally reasonable to me that most Americans with little power-tool experience would have found for the plaintiff.
An Uncertain Future
According to an industry insider who refused to be identified on the record, the CPSC has promised a decision on revised tablesaw safety standards by the end of the summer. SawStop owner Steve Gass has petitioned the agency in the past, asking that SawStop be required on all tablesaws. As a result, manufacturers claim they’re in a holding pattern on what to do about the Osorio case and tablesaw safety generally.
One of the most interesting pieces of information gleaned from the court record was that Bosch has tested its own version of SawStop, but with Gass’s background as a patent attorney, he has worded his patents so anything that could be described as “flesh sensing” or “blade braking” would likely result in a patent infringement suit.
One of the fundamental problems with SawStop technology on portable saws involves how to absorb all the energy created by such rapid deceleration of the blade. In testing, small benchtop saws are often destroyed by this deceleration, so the housing and trunnion need significant strengthening if the saw is to survive a brake deployment. This reinforcement would likely make the saw less portable and therefore less desirable as a job-site saw. Bosch seems to have solved this problem in a novel manner. Rather than trying to stop the blade, they use a “pyrotechnic” charge that’s linked to the trunnion. When the blade touches a finger, the charge detonates, forcing down the trunnion which lowers the blade in a few milliseconds.
This method allows the blade to keep spinning so the saw doesn’t have to absorb all the energy at once. Unfortunately, it looks as though even this method could run afoul of Gass’s “flesh sensing” patent, as it too uses the difference in conductivity between flesh and wood as a fundamental concept. Bosch says the alternative technology is less expensive and its pyrotechnic cartridge would be perhaps $10 or $20. In addition, the blade would not be destroyed as it on SawStop saws.
We’ll keep you posted on the CPSC ruling and future lawsuits.