$13 Million Jury Verdict in Industrial Machine Defect Case

August 26, 2011 - A jury in Tazewell County Circuit Court today reached a verdict in a significant product liability case tried before the Honorable Paul Gilfillan, Circuit Judge. Stone v. Mitek Industries, Inc. v. C.I.T. Industries, Inc. 08 L 155.

Dustin Stone, then 19, was employed as a truss builder at C.I.T. in Deer Creek, IL, when he was injured on November 10, 2008. On that day, he was between the tables of the MiTek RoofGlider machine, a one hundred foot long machine comprised of work tables that a gantry rolled roof trusses on. His job involved hammering metal plates into the wood trusses that were laid out on the table. In the usual course of events, a worker would get on the operator's platform of the gantry and drive the gantry over the truss, compressing the metal plates to make the truss secure. The operator was expected to make sure the aisles were clear of all workers before driving the gantry.

On this occasion, however, the operator failed to make sure that the tables were clear and he drove the gantry toward Dustin. Dustin tried to get out of the path of the gantry by moving down the aisle, but he was unable to get entirely out of the way. The gantry trapped and crushed his left femur against a metal rail on the machine causing it to explode according to paramedic testimony. Just before the gantry came upon him, Dustin pushed the safety bar that was supposed to immediately shut down the gantry. Had the safety bar functioned, he would not have been injured. It failed on this day and that led to his suit against the designer and manufacturer of the machine, MiTek Industries, Inc. Dustin has an above knee amputation of his left leg.

MiTek first sold the RoofGlider machine in 1998. At that time, the safety bar was welded to pivot arms that were suspended 3 feet forward of the leading edge of the gantry. There were no reported failures of that design. In 2001, MiTek hired a new chief of engineering, Glenn McNeelage. Mr. McNeelage decided to redesign the safety bar. In his design, which was incorporated into RoofGliders from 2001 forward, the safety bar was attached to the pivot arms by c-collars with screws. The machine at C.I.T. was purchased in 2005 and had the c-collar and screw design.

In the trial, Mr. McNeelage and his supervisor, Sr. Vice President, Robert LePoire, admitted that they did no testing of this new design and they did no fault tree analysis or failure mode effects analysis of the design. Both admitted they were ignorant of the fact, proven by the Stone incident, that if the screws on the c-collar assembly loosened due to machine vibration, that the safety bar was prone to failure. All workers there and video evidence showed that the usual use of the RoofGlider caused vibration to the safety bar.

Within hours of the incident, Dustin's supervisor, Todd Erwin, General Manager of C.I.T., examined the safety device and found that the screws were loose and discovered the failure mode that led to Dustin's crushing injuries. Examinations later by engineers on behalf of all parties concluded that the looseness of the screws on the c-collars on the safety bar led to the device failing to stop the moving gantry.

Plaintiff claimed that RoofGlider was unreasonably dangerous in design because it lacked effective point of operation guarding. MiTek claimed its design was reasonable, and that the causes of the occurrence were plaintiff's assumption of risk and the employer's failure to maintain the guard and the employer's vicarious liability for the operator of the machine's inattention.

Plaintiff's experts were:

  • John Mroszczyk, Ph.D., safety engineering, Danvers, MA.
  • Charles M. Linke, Ph.D., economics, Champaign, IL.
  • John Michael, C.P.O., prosthetics, Chicago, IL.

MiTek's expert was:

  • Dennis Brickman, mechanical engineer, Aurora, IL.

C.I.T.'s expert was:

  • John Meyer, Ph.D., mechanical engineer, Sugar Grove, IL.

Plaintiff was represented by Bruce R. Pfaff and Matthew D. Ports of Pfaff, Gill & Ports, Ltd., Chicago.
MiTek was represented by Mark D. Hansen, Heyl Royster Voelker & Allen, Peoria. Zurich insures MiTek.
C.I.T. was represented by John O'Connor of Poulos & O'Connor, Chicago. Accident Fund and Cincinnati Insurance insure C.I.T.
The trial began 8/15/11 and the verdict was reached 8/26/11 at 1:30 pm.
Plaintiff's counsel asked the jury to award $13,157,172.71 to $13,544,172.71.
The jury awarded a total of $13,544,172.71, itemized as follows:

  • Past medical expenses: $157,172.41
  • Future medical expenses: $3,387,131
  • Pain and suffering: $5,000,000
  • Disfigurement: $1,000,000
  • Disability: $4,000,000

The jury allocated fault as follows:

  • Plaintiff 0%
  • MiTek 71%
  • C.I.T. 29%

In an answer to a special interrogatory, the jury found that the RoofGlider was in an unreasonably dangerous condition when it left the control of MiTek.

UPDATE - July 1, 2014 - The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed our verdict. Stone v. Mitek Industries, Inc., 2014 IL App (3d) 120122-U