Friday, October 14, 2011

Of Table Saws and Lawsuits

Many of you know that I do a little bit of woodworking in my not-so-copious free time.  As an amateur woodworker, I've been following the progress of a recent table saw safety lawsuit rather closely.  It turns out that a huge cash award verdict was just recently upheld on appeal.  A good summary of the circumstances of the suit can be found here.

The case basically boils down to the fact that in 2004 Osario (the plaintiff) was using a table saw and cut his hand badly, almost losing several fingers.  Because there exists technology that would stop and retract the blade upon flesh contact, saving his hand, Osario claims Ryobi (the saw manufacturer) was negligent for not including it in the saw in question.

Now.  Please allow me to drag out my soapbox and begin raging.  I was certain this case would be overturned on appeal.  Anyone who has ever used a table saw was immediately horrified when they read how Osario (the plaintiff) was using it.  My immediate reaction was that it would have been a miracle if he didn't injure himself.  Allow me to number the issues:

  1. The blade guard and splitter had been removed
  2. Rip cuts were being made freehand, without the aid of a rip fence
  3. When he encountered resistance, he simply pushed the board harder
This is insanity.  The blade guard helps prevent your hand from contacting the blade.  The splitter helps prevent the wood from binding on the blade (preventing kickback).  Freehand cuts are suicidal - without a guide, you are likely to twist the board around the blade, causing it to bind and/or kickback.  Finally, when the board did bind (as we all knew it must), he just pushed harder - which anyone will tell you will end badly.  If the board is stuck, you lose your grip and take a trip to the blade (which happened), or it will bind on the back of the blade and the whole board gets thrown at you (not much better).  The safety equipment was removed and ignored, and Ryobi should be liable?

Okay, time for dispassioned analysis.

Let us set aside for the moment the negligent fashion in which the saw was being used.  Let's talk about the table saw market.  The on-site contractor market is served by, appropriately enough, a class of table saws referred to as contractor saws.  Cabinet saws, destined for dedicated woodshops, are the beefiest and most powerful class, and can easily run $3K.  Tabletop saws, which are small, portable, and light-duty, can be found for as little as $100.  Contractor saws live in the middle ground, needing to be powerful enough to handle decent sized jobs, but mobile enough to easily move between work sites.  Contractor saws generally run anywhere from about $500 to $1800,  depending on the specs of the saw.  The saw-stopping technology adds about $150-$200 to the price of a saw (plus you need a new blade if it ever goes off accidentally, which they do).  This is a non-trivial price hike (10%-20%) for what could be considered a dubiously necessary increase in safety.  Again, I find it hard to condemn Ryobi as negligent for refusing to include safety technology that would likely have just priced them out of the market.

Let's also look at the development timeline of the blade-stopping technology.  It was developed by Steve Gass in the 1999.  He then proceeded to shop it around to many table saw manufacturers, but failed to find anyone to license it.  Seeing that, he proceeded to found his own company (SawStop) and begin manufacturing his own saws, the first of which shipped in late 2004.  These models were cabinet saws; they did not introduce a contractor saw until 2008.  (These details are from the SawStop website.)  So, in April 2004, when the injury occurred, there existed no table saws on the market incorporating blade-stopping technology.  In fact it took until 2008 for there to even exist a saw incorporating that technology that would have been suitable for the job Osario was performing.  I find it hard to find Ryobi negligent when there was no saw on the market at all that incorporated the technology in question.  The technology existed, and nobody in the industry used it, so therefore Ryobi was negligent for not implementing it?  That's downright silly.

When I look at the totality of the facts (that I have access to) on this case, I find Ryobi blameless.  Honestly, Osario may have a case against his former employer for negligence, since it seems clear that he had no idea how to use the saw on which he injured himself.  It seems, however, that he has chosen to go after the deep pockets, rather than anyone who might reasonably be held to be negligent.  That's appalling, and it's even more appalling that he has won this case.  Twice.


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