On Friday, the First Circuit upheld the $1.5 million damages award in Carlos Osorio table saw case. Osorio, a carpenter untrained in the table saw, lost his hand to a Ryobi table saw after removing all of the saw’s safety features. The decision was made because Ryobi had neglected to incorporate flesh-sensing brake technology into the saw. In light of the ruling, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to propose a tablesaw safety standard that would mandate that saws all sense fingers and retract their blades instantly.
Problem is, only one man has flesh-sensing brake technology. His patent is so broadly worded that no one else has been able to develop a comparable technology, and his licensing terms have made it impossible for competitors to adopt his invention without pricing their saws out of the market,. The implications of this ruling for the industry are massive.
In 2004, SawStop’s first cabinet saw hit the market, it offered an amazing and unprecedented safety feature: a blade that instantly senses contact with flesh and snaps out of sight before any real damage can be done. The inventor, Dr. Steve Gass, had tamed carpentry’s most dangerous tool, an amazing feat in itself. On top of that, unlike thousands of other inventors, Gass actually brought his product to market–himself. Since then, Gass has introduced smaller models of the saw, and sold over 28,000 machines in all.
Osorio suffered a hand injury while he operated a Ryobi Model BTS 15 benchtop table saw (BTS 15). Osorio sued Ryobi, the manufacturer, claiming negligence and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. At trial, Osorio argued that the BTS 15 was unacceptably dangerous due to defective design. The jury found for Osorio, and Ryobi appealed.
Among its appellate claims, Ryobi argued that Osorio did not present sufficient evidence to prove a design defect. Ryobi argued that Osorio failed to meet a prima facie obligation to present a reasonable alternative design that accounted for the weight, cost, and other features particular to the BTS 15.
Osorio’s defective design theory largely relied on the testimony of his expert witness, Dr. Gass himself. Dr. Gass testified that he had offered to license SawStop’s flesh-detection technology to Ryobi, but the company was not interested. Osorio offered a second expert, Robert Holt, to support Dr. Gass’ testimony. Holt accepted Dr. Gass’ claim that SawStop Technology would add about $150 to the price of the table saw. (For saw-pricing context, Osorio’s employer purchased the BTS 15 for $179.)
Ryobi insisted that Osorio’s design, with SawStop, falls short of being a viable alternative.
The First Circuit disagreed with Ryobi, finding that neither the added cost nor the increased weight of Osorio’s proposed alternative design were fatal to his case as a matter of law. Ultimately, the First Circuit determined that it was the jury’s job to determine whether the relevant factors suggest defective design.
It is surprising that Ryobi appealed on the sufficiency of Osorio’s defective design evidence, but didn’t challenge Dr. Gass’ expert classification. While jurors determine how much weight to afford to testimony, it seems unusual that a court would permit expert classification for someone who clearly has a stake in the outcome of the case.