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Flesh Eating Saw: 1st Cir Saw Defective Design, No Relief for Ryobi

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 06, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We like to build things, but we don't have a table saw. When we need wood cut, we let the hardware store do it for us. On one such occasion, a store employee cut his hand on the saw while cutting our laminate shelving. There was a lot of blood. It was awful.

How does this relate to the First Circuit Court of Appeals? Defective design litigation.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued upheld a $1.5 million jury award in a negligence and implied warranty of merchantability case involving a table saw.

Carlos 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 before the First Circuit Court of Appeals that Osorio failed to meet a prima facie obligation to present a reasonable alternative design for the product at issue 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 witness, Dr. Stephen Gass, inventor of "SawStop," a mechanism that allows a table saw to sense when the blade comes into contact with flesh, immediately stops the blade from spinning, and causes it to retract into the body of the saw.

Dr. Gass testified that he had tried 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 less than $150 to the price of the table saw. (For saw-pricing context, Osorio's employer purchased the BTS 15 for $179.)

Ryobi insists that Osorio's proffered design, with SawStop, falls short of being a viable alternative.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals 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.

Flesh-detection technology has become a hot issue because table saw injuries are so common. Certainly, we would have preferred for the saw at our local hardware store to have had flesh-detection technology because we nearly fainted when we saw the staffer cut his hand. He was probably squeamish, too.

We're surprised 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.

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