WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that a man whose leg was amputated in a 1995 industrial accident cannot sue the manufacturer or the original operator of the machine because it had been in place for at least 20 years.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Monday that Frederick A. Lewis, 31, cannot sue because the shrink-wrap machine that severed his left leg was an “improvement to real property,” and thus subject to the state’s 20-year statute of repose.
Lewis’ attorney, John R. Sutherland, was sharply critical of the court’s reasoning, saying it would, in effect, “immunize corporations.”
“My view is that the law didn’t originally intend this,” Sutherland said. “I don’t see how they can stop from extending the definition to all equipment.
“That would mean that effectively, if a piece of equipment has been in place for 20 years, manufacturers would not be liable, no matter how dangerous the equipment is,” he said.
But an attorney for Weldotron Corp., the defunct New Jersey-based manufacturer of the machine, said Lewis was probably partly to blame for the accident.
“There is evidence that would support a finding that on this day the accident happened because Mr. Lewis, presumably without thinking, placed his foot into an area where this tragic accident could occur,” said William N. Zifchak, the attorney, who described Lewis as a “delightful kid.”
“Under Maryland law, there is a doctrine called contributory negligence. That is part of what happened here,” Zifchak said, who noted that the machine operated for “over 20 years without causing a single injury to a single worker.”
The device in question was a large, gas-powered shrink-wrap machine that was used to wrap pallets of brick in plastic before being they were shipped from the Frostburg brick plant where Lewis was injured.
Built and installed in 1969, when the plant was owned by Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp., the machine was still in use in 1995, after the plant and its equipment had been purchased from Kaiser by the Mount Savage Firebrick Co.
Lewis, a 1992 graduate of Frostburg State University, was 25 years old when he began working at Mount Savage in April 1995. He was operating the shrink-wrap machine on May 11, 1995, when a pallet of bricks became wedged between two sets of conveyors.
According to court documents, Lewis tried to dislodge the pallet by pushing against it, but he slipped and his left leg became caught between the conveyor belts. Unable to stop the machine and with no one nearby in time to help him, Lewis was helpless as a pallet of bricks moving on one of the conveyors severed his left leg near the knee.
Lewis sued both Weldotron and Kaiser in federal court for negligence and breach of warranty. The issue ultimately came down to whether or not the shrink- wrap machine constituted an “improvement to real property.” Both the U.S. District Court and the appeals court said it did and therefore the 20-year limit under the statute of repose applies.
Sutherland was sharply critical of this reasoning, saying the state legislature didn’t intend to violate a “commonsense” meaning of the word improvement. He was also upset that Lewis did not get a jury trial.
“If you are going to use commonsense to define something, I think that should be the province of a jury,” he said.
Both Sutherland and Zifchak said they are happy that Lewis, who now wears a prosthesis, is doing very well, even coaching youth hockey where he lives in Western Maryland.
The Mount Savage company said it no longer uses gas-fired shrink-wrap Machines and Tennessee-based Weldotron 2000 Corp., which purchased the assets of the New Jersey company, said it does not make such machines. Weldotron 2000 President Thomas G. Gammache also said his company is not otherwise related to the New Jersey firm and is not responsible for any of the old Weldotron’s liabilities.