How to Win $1.5-Million: Lessons from the Tablesaw Lawsuit
Like many woodworkers and carpenters I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first read about the Carlos Osorio lawsuit. I wondered how somebody who had violated almost every tablesaw safety rule could successfully sue a tablesaw manufacturer for $1.5 million in damages.
My first assumption was that the jury must have been completely unfamiliar with power tools and their proper operation. I also thought (and still do) that Osorio’s employer, a flooring company, and not the manufacturer, Ryobi, should be on the hook for not adequately training the young man, who had never used a power tool before he was hired.
So when the court transcript was posted to the Pacer Court Records database on June 3, I couldn’t wait to read exactly what happened in that courtroom. I’ve been reading the documents between working my regular job, buying a house, and packing for a move, so I’ve only made it through 500 of the nearly 1,100 pages of transcript, but I think I’m starting to understand how Osorio and his legal team won their suit.
I think the verdict boils down to successfully playing on the jury’s emotions. In their opening statement, Osorio’s legal team presented TTI, Ryobi’s parent company, as a huge multinational corporation led by people who put profits ahead of customer safety. They cited sales figures that show between 2001 and 2008, the Taiwan-based company sold 200,000 BTS15 tablesaws valued at more than $37 million. During the same period, they sold $550 million in tablesaws of all types. Both figures are based on U.S. sales only.
The plaintiff described how Ryobi was at first interested in Steven Gass’s SawStop blade-braking technology, even negotiating an agreement to use SawStop, and then under seemingly mysterious circumstances wouldn’t sign the contract.
Shortly after the deal with Gass fell through, TTI and other members of the Power Tool Institute (PTI) decided to work together to find another technology that could protect users and satisfy Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) demands calling for ways to reduce tablesaw injuries. The PTI working group would ultimately come up with the “modular guarding system” that includes a riving knife, blade cover, and anti-kickback pawls. The improved guard is now commonplace on portable tablesaws.
More on the Controversial Tablesaw Lawsuit
Osorio’s lawyers used tool industry executives to testify how a PTI collaboration like the one described—where they would share any technological advances and split the cost—was unprecedented. To me, they made it appear that PTI and the other companies in the “working group” were circling the wagons, hoping that Gass would ultimately go broke or go away.
They described Osorio’s painful and debilitating injuries. Most disturbing were the descriptions from Osorio himself. He explained how the medical team used leeches to drain the pooling blood from his reattached fingers and how the fattened leeches would fall to his chest when they couldn’t hold another drop. He talked about how he now suffers from depression and that he would be unlikely to find work in the computer field for which he was trained, because his mangled fingers make typing nearly impossible.
The Osorio legal team introduced experts who estimated that adding flesh detection technology to small tablesaws would cost between $50 and $200, which sounds like a reasonable sum when you consider the damage done to Osorio’s hand. A pair of expert witnesses both said that a rip fence and guard wouldn’t have prevented Osorio’s injuries. And Osorio said that in the time he worked for the flooring company, he never saw a guard on either of the company’s two portable tablesaws.
In the coming weeks I’ll describe how TTI mounted their defense and where I think they fell short. I must say, I never thought 1,200 pages of court documents could be so interesting.