Power Saw Accidents And Safety Standards: Important Decisions From CPSC And A Federal Court

power-saws-1.jpgLast Wednesday was a watershed day for preventing power saw accidents. On Wednesday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted unanimously formulate new rules that would make power saws safer. Also on Wednesday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $1.5 million jury verdict in favor of a worker whose hand was severely injured in a power saw accident, due to the fact that the Ryobi saw that he was using was not equipped with SawStop “flesh detection” technology.
We’ve blogged quite a bit about SawStop before. This incredible new (and old-fashioned) technology makes power saw accidents completely avoidable. But the major power saw manufacturers, companies like Black & Decker, Delta, Rigid and Ryobi, have not licensed the patented technology behind SawStop and so woodworkers, contractors and tradesman continue to lose fingers and suffer approximately 67,300 serious power saw accidents a year.
The principle behind the patented SawStop technology available in SawStop-brand saws is relatively easy to understand. Have you ever seen one of those old-fashioned touch lamps where you touch the base of the lamp and the light turns on and off? The way those lamps work is that a small electrical current passes through the base of the lamp and when your hand (which is largely water, a good electrical conductor) touches the base of the lamp, it interrupts the current and triggers the off switch. SawStop brand technology works in a similar way: the saw blade carries a small electrical current and, when that current gets interrupted, it triggers a brake mechanism that stops the blade, reducing its speed from 5,000 rpm to 0 rpm in several milliseconds.
The CPSC may or may not mandate SawStop-equivalent technology when it decides its new rules. But SawStop-type flesh detection technology is one option that CPSC is weighing. CPSC has 60 days to formulate its new rules and, during that period, will be welcoming comments from industry groups and consumers.
Regardless of whether CPSC decides to mandate the SawStop technology in all saws, product liability lawsuits will be able to continue.
On Wednesday, in Osorio v. One World Technologies, the First Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court seated in Boston), granted an expected boost to those lawsuits when it affirmed a $1.5-million jury verdict in favor of a worker whose fingers were injured while using a Ryobi BTS-15 table saw.
Even though SawStop does not presently manufacture a smaller saw like the Ryobi BTS, the First Circuit held that the jury could have concluded that it was feasible to incorporate SawStop technology into light-weight portable saws, as SawStop’s founder, Steve Gass, Ph.D., testified could be done.
The First Circuit also ruled that the plaintiff counsel’s urging the jury to “send a message,” although inadvisable, was a harmless error.
To read more about SawStop and preventable power saw accidents, click here, here and here.

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CPSC May Mandate Flesh Detection Technology In Table Saws: Is That A Good Thing?

sawstop_rivingknife.jpgAs reported this week by USA Today, the head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission will call in various power tool manufacturers to demand an answer as to why they have not done more to prevent the daily finger amputations caused by power saws. If the industry fails to voluntarily develop better safety standards, the CPSC may mandate new safety technology, including the use of “flesh detection” technology that stops a saw blade when a finger comes in contact with it.
As we have previously blogged about here and here, patent lawyer-turned-inventor Steve Gass has developed a patented technology that stops saw blades within approximately five milliseconds of coming into contact with human flesh or any other highly electrically conductive object. He’s started his own saw company, SawStop, that sells saws incorporating the technology.
The principle behind SawStop is the same as the principle behind those old “touch lamps” that would turn on and off when you touched their base: the SawStop saw blade carries an electrical charge and when an electrical conductor like human flesh (which is mainly water) comes in contact with the saw blade, the contact interrupts the electrical charge (which is transmitted at the speed of light) and triggers a brake mechanism that drops the saw blade down into its housing. The amazing technology was recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s Time Warp program, showing Steve Gass running his finger through a SawStop saw blade and coming away with nary a scratch. (Hat tip to law professor Alberto Bernabe for picking up on this amazing video).
When Gass developed this technology over a decade ago, he approached all the major power tool manufacturers, such as Ryobi and Black & Decker to license it to them. They expressed initial interest but never pursued it.
Meanwhile finger amputations from power saws continue to occur at about the rate of ten a day, according to data that the CPSC gather through its National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). The CPSC estimates that these saw accidents cost the economy $2 billion annually.
If the saw manufacturers don’t act quickly to implement some new safety technology, CPSC may mandate that table saws come equipped with flesh detection technology. (The recent attention being paid to the dangers of power saws has spurred a number of innovations, including this new Whirlwind saw).
The dilemma about what to do with unsafe products, such as power saws lacking SawStop, is an interesting one. We have essentially two frameworks for dealing with unsafe products: tort (people injured by unsafe products file lawsuits) and regulatory (agencies like the CPSC or FDA step in and try to formulate appropriate regulations to protect people). As we have seen on this blog, a lot of free market economists, like (the late) Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, favor a robust tort system and are skeptical of regulatory solutions.
There is good reason to be skeptical of regulatory solutions. Regulatory agencies are prone to “regulatory capture” – being taken hostage by the corporate special interests that they are supposed to govern. We saw a good example of regulatory capture this past summer with the BP oil spill and what it revealed about how the Minerals Management Service was in the oil companies’ back pocket.
But regulation of unsafe and dangerous products does have its place. In order to prevail in a product liability lawsuit premised on a defective design, a plaintiff needs to show, among other things, a reasonable alternative design that is safer. Back v. Wickes Corp., 378 N.E.2d 964; Fahey v. Rockwell Graphics Sys., 20 Mass. App. Ct. 642. It can be fatal to a plaintiff’s case if the proposed alternative design is vastly more expensive; a jury can weigh the higher price of an alternative design in considering whether the original design was defective.
Now let’s say that incorporating an infallible safety technology in a power saw adds $1,000 to the price of a $200 power saw (I am making up numbers for ease of calculation). That would mean that someone injured by a power saw without this new technology would have a very difficult time making out a defective design claim.
Now imagine the power tool industry sells 100,000 power saws a year. And the cost to our society of finger losses caused by power saws is (as the CPSC says it is) $2 billion annually. Our society would be better off if power saw manufacturers were forced to incorporate this new, magical technology in their saws, even if it added $1,000 to the price of saws, because the $100,000,000 cost of adding the technology to the saws (100,000 saws x $1,000 per saw=$100,000,000) is much less than cost to our society of saws that lack the technology ($2 billion in annual medical costs, lost wages, etc.).
In the one case that has gone to trial thus far alleging that a power saw was defective by design because it did not include flesh detection technology – a $1.5 million verdict for the plaintiff – the jury heard evidence that the cost of SawStop technology was only a fraction of the cost of the saw, especially more expensive saws like cabinet saws. So individual product liability suits brought by those who lost fingers to power saws may eventually succeed in compelling the power tool industry’s big manufacturers to include this technology. But the industry could certainly use a push from CPSC as well.
Disclosure: The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. is involved with claims against table saw manufacturers.

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Amazing Video of SawStop Technology

In March, I blogged about this $1.5 million jury verdict against saw manufacturer Ryobi for failing to equip its table saws with some form of flesh detection technology, such as that offered in SawStop-brand saws. This video illustrates the SawStop technology that’s been wowing contractors and other tradesmen over the last decade or so:

For more about SawStop, and the power saw industry’s refusal to license the patented technology for its own power saws, check out the stories here, here, and here.
To date, SawStop technology is credited with hundreds of “finger saves” – instances where the technology saved table saw operators from losing fingers.
PS – If you’re wondering how SawStop works, it relies on electrical conductivity. It’s the same principle that you see at work in those old “touch lamps” that would turn off and on whenever your hand came in contact with their base.

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