Power Tool Manufacturers Choose Being Sued Over Being Safe

A few years ago, we wrote about a device on certain table saws that prevents amputations and other injuries from the collision of human anatomy and spinning saw blades. At the time, only one manufacturer, SawStop, used the safety measure because its competitors claimed that it would boost the cost of table saws above what consumers would pay, and that the blade guards were so awkward users would remove them.

And bar owners decried no-smoking legislation as a threat to their livelihood and car manufacturers were reluctant to embrace seat belts and airbags because, apparently, safety was too expensive.

A recent report on FairWarning.org details how SawStop finally had enough, and filed a federal antitrust lawsuit. It claims that Bosch, Black & Decker, Makita, Ryobi Technologies and other power tool companies colluded in a boycott of SawStop’s finger-saving technology, according to Fair Warning, “fearing that if it gained traction, they would face increased liability for injuries from standard table saws.”

The technology instantly stops a whirring blade on skin contact by using a weak electrical current in the saw blade. The skin absorbs part of the signal that a sensor detects, and activates a spring to jam a wedge between the teeth of the blade within milliseconds. When the technology was introduced, the larger manufacturers uniformly shunned it, and manipulated industry guidelines to keep such safety systems from becoming the industry standard.

More than 67,000 people suffer blade contact injuries every year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). More than 33,000 of those injuries are treated in emergency rooms, 4,000 end up as amputations.

The Power Tool Institute, an industry trade group, and Underwriters Laboratories, a safety consulting organization that oversees the content of voluntary table saw standards, weren’t included as defendants in the lawsuit, but were described as co-conspirators.

SawStop says the industry conspiracy began in 2001 or 2002, but it didn’t come to light until February 2010 when a retired Ryobi official testified in a trial involving Carlos Osorio, who had sued the company after suffering severe hand injuries in a table saw accident. (His judgment was $1.5 million.)

Ryobi’s former director of advanced technologies testified that officials expressed concern at meetings of the Power Tool Institute that the SawStop technology could expose them to legal liability because “if another manufacturer were to develop a concept of improved table saw safety, then the manufacturers who don’t have that would certainly be at a disadvantage when it comes to product liability,” he said.

As Fair Warning points out, the lawsuit faces a lot of challenges because federal law says that anti-trust claims must be brought within four years of alleged violations. But that limit can be extended if it’s proved that the defendants willfully concealed conspiracy. The lawsuit seeks to have the clock start running at the time of the executive’s testimony – almost four years to the day from the filing of the case.

Since 2004, SawStop has sold more than 50,000 of the safer saws, which are larger and more expensive than most models.The company has a list of more than 2,000 “finger saves,” in which a user came into contact with a spinning blade. In more than 9 in 10 of these cases, the lawsuit say, the result was a cut that required no more than a bandage.

Clearly, it works; five larger companies, including Black & Decker, Bosch and Ryobi, jointly developed their own injury reduction system in response. But the joint venture ended in 2009, when members said they had developed a safety system superior to SawStop. They have yet to include it in a single saw.

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