Caution! Saw May Be Sharp!

Word to the wise: sharp things can hurt you. If you buy something that is sharp--say, a precision machine designed to cut wood by spinning a 10-inch blade at nearly 4,000 RPM--then it's reasonable to suggest that you know what you're getting into. Namely, that you know it could cut you if you happened to touch that spinning wheel of death.

If simple common sense isn't enough, the liability-shy manufacturers make sure to plaster DANGER: WILL ROBINSON!!! warnings all over their tools. So much so that the warnings take up more of the manual than the "how to operate this tool" section.

I'll admit that my table saw is an imposing piece of machinery. It's intimidating, and I treat it with a healthy dose of respect. Much like I would get into full battle garb and carefully plan all my movements when dealing with HCl or infectious bodily agents in the lab, my table saw gets special consideration in my pantheon of tools. Now that I think about it, some of my hand-held tools are probably more dangerous with regular use, but there's something about the table saw when it's going full speed. It is serious.

So if I told you that a Boston-area man bought an entry-level table saw from Home Depot in the mid-2000's and when he mangled one of his hands in 2006, he sued and just won a $1.5M verdict, would you be surprised?

Sadly, you probably wouldn't, and neither would I. Still, the patent absurdity of a jury awarding some bozo a ton of cash because the extremely dangerous tool he bought turned out to be exactly as advertized. . . well, it's beyond the pale.

His side argued that some prohibitively expensive safety feature exists that can sense when the saw blade touches human skin and stop the blade, and the manufacturer was negligent because it hadn't included it. Sigh.

Just because a safety measure exists does not make a company liable for selling a product that is exactly what everyone knows it is. If the company said "no one can ever be injured with this table saw, ever, never, NEVER!" then sure, they'd be liable. But they went in the exact opposite direction, warning about SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH on every open square inch of the product, its packaging, and its manuals. Thus, one might expect that extra care was warranted in using said product, and if one's hand gets mangled, it's probably because one was being a fucking idiot while using it.

I'm sure this is the same line of thinking that reasonable people were bandying about when that old crone spilled hot coffee on her lap, and--my oh my!--burned the crap out of her legs. Still, rampant stupidity and abdication of personal responsibility for one's own well-being and life must be called to the carpet when it rears its head. Even if it's lost on too many to be any good.

At least one commenter on the Boston Globe article got it right when he summed it up thusly:
The hammer manufacturers will be next, for not including thumb detecting radar.
It really is that sick and stupid.


Qwertz said...

Modern products liability law is a total disaster, and was created mostly out of thin air back in the middle of the 20th Century by one California Supreme Court justice: Justice Roger Traynor, who is often called the architect of modern judicial liberalism. Righting social inequalities through the power of the courts and all that jazz. The doctrine starts with his concurrence in Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal. 2d. 453, where he states the fundamental driving principle that would evenutally underpin all of products liability law: "Even if there is no negligence, however, public policy demands that responsibility be fixed wherever it will most effectively reduce the hazards to life and health inherent in defective products that reach the market." This principle later became called the "least cost avoider" principle, and assigns liability in cases where no one was actually negligent to the entity that was in the best position to have done something to prevent the problem. In Escola, Coca-Cola was in the best position to do something to make sure its glass bottles didn't have latent defects making them prone to exploding, perhaps by rigorously testing each bottle. In practice, the principle basically means "deepest pockets pays." It is a field of law so vastly different from the negligence-based common law in place since the 1500s that I spent over 1/4 of my two semesters studying torts in law school on products liability. It's a nightmare, it's sick, and it's unjust. And it is the state of the law today.


C. August said...

Thanks for the interesting comment. This subject would make a great TOS article.