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Seventh Circuit Vacates Tablesaw Injury Verdict for Evidentiary Mistakes – Stollings v. Ryobi Technologies

By August 16, 2013July 23rd, 2019Product Liability

From offices in southern Illinois and St. Louis, I frequently represent clients who suffered injuries because they used defective products that were more dangerous than they had any reason to expect. So as a product defects attorney in southern Illinois, I was interested to see such a claim in a Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case that came from Illinois. In Stollings v. Ryobi Technologies, Brandon Stollings sued the manufacturer of a tablesaw on which he lost an index finger and parts of other fingers, arguing that the design was defective because it lacked one of two safety features that can prevent accidents like his. The trial court made several evidentiary rulings favorable to Ryobi, including permitting Ryobi’s counsel to argue that Stollings’s counsel brought the case as part of an attempt to sell automatic braking systems for saws. The Seventh Circuit vacated the ensuing jury verdict for Ryobi and ordered a new trial.
Stollings suffered his injury because of a phenomenon known as kickback. Kickback is created when the gap in the wood created by the saw closes around the saw blade, throwing the wood back at the user. Stollings had his hand closed around the wood at the time this happened to him, and that’s what caused his injury. The saw had a guard, but Stollings, like many users including Ryobi’s own former chief engineer, had removed it because it prevented him from seeing the blade or making certain cuts. In his lawsuit, Stollings argued that either one of two technologies needed to be included in Ryobi tablesaws in order to make them not defective: either a riving knife, which holds the cut in the wood open and thus prevents kickbacks, or an automatic brake that stops the saw on contact with human tissue. At his trial, the judge permitted Ryobi’s attorney to argue that Stallings’s attorney filed the case to force Ryobi to invest in technology he partly owned. The jury found for Ryobi.
On appeal, Stollings argued that the judge was wrong to permit the joint venture argument. The Seventh Circuit ultimately reversed on the joint venture argument, but also found for Stollings on other arguments. The joint venture argument has to do with the inventor of the “flesh detection technology” that automatically brakes the saw, Stephen Gass. Ryobi had turned down an opportunity to buy Gass’s automatic brake, and at trial, was permitted to argue that Gass and the attorneys for Stollings conspired to file product liability cases in order to force Ryobi to buy the technology. Evidence for this was one newspaper article admitted over a hearsay objection. The judge ultimately permitted the jury to consider it. The Seventh agreed that this denied Stollings a fair trial; it was inflammatory and irrelevant and unsupported by any admissible evidence. Because evidence in favor of the verdict was not overwhelming, the Seventh found this could have influenced the jury and ordered a new trial. It then went on to decide that on retrial, Stollings should be permitted to use a previously excluded expert and the court should not give a sole proximate cause instruction.
As a St. Louis defective product lawyer, I’m pleased to see this reversal. Indeed, I’m surprised that the trial court permitted this argument, given the problems the Seventh Circuit found with it. Though manufacturers don’t like to be sued, I don’t know of any suits that spring from industrial espionage. It’s more likely that Stollings sued because he was genuinely upset by the loss of his fingers. Losing fingers can substantially reduce the use of the hand, which can eliminate some victims’ ability to work in the same field they once did. It can also affect activities of daily life, such as zipping up clothes. It can change how other people react to the victim, causing stares or rude comments. And of course, it’s painful. In my job as a Missouri personal injury attorney, I help clients recover financial compensation for all of these injuries and more, so they can have help adjusting to a new disability.

Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients in Missouri and southern Illinois who were seriously injured or lost a loved one because of someone else’s negligence. If you’d like to talk to us about your situation and your rights, don’t hesitate to contact us. You can reach us online or call 1-877-678-3400 today.
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