Factory Worker’s Thumb Amputation: Finger and Hand Injuries Caused by a Defective Product | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

What Happened

Our client was working as a welder at a factory that manufactures livestock trailers when an industrial accident mangled his right hand so badly that doctors eventually had to amputate his thumb. At the time of the disabling accident, the welder was attaching an aluminum safety block to the underside of one corner of a trailer he was assembling. Each trailer is equipped with a part called either a drop leg jack or a multiple-position jack. Operating the jack allows an owner to adjust the height and angle of the trailer.

Each jack arrived at our client’s factory preassembled by a different company and attaching a safety block required the welder to grasp a drop leg assembly below the jack as the jack supported the entire weight of the trailer.

When the jack failed, at least two of our client’s coworkers were moving around the trailer, which likely caused the jack to slip and crush and partially trapped the welder’s hand.

Stopping the bleeding and repairing the mangled hand to the extent possible required four surgeries performed over 60 days. Pain, disability, and risk of infection prompted the decision to remove most of the welder’s right thumb. That possibly lifesaving choice prevented our client from returning to work at his well-paying skilled manufacturing job.


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Key Legal Strategy

Even though our client was eligible to receive workers’ compensation, we assured him that he had a strong claim to make against the manufacturer of the drop leg jack. A properly designed and produced jack would not have failed under the conditions of use that existed at the time of the welder’s disabling hand injury. It was rated to hold 10,000 pounds, well below weight of the partially assembled trailer even with a couple of people inside. It was also outfitted with a locking pin that was supposed to insert all the way through an inner cylinder, meaning that shaking would not dislodge the device.

Still, defective product cases are among the most difficult personal injury cases. Manufacturers often operate outside the United States, and companies can use many arguments to introduce doubt over whether an injured person used the product as designed and while heeding all warnings.

The first steps our defective product attorney took involved identifying and contacting the Chinese maker of the drop leg jack that failed and its U.S. partner, which sold the jack to the trailer factory. He secured permission to examine the jack that injured his client and learned that a manufacturer’s representative had come to the factory within days after the accident. The purpose of that visit was to negotiate the return of all the jacks from the lot containing the failed part because of suspected defects.

Trailer factory workers described the problem as a malfunctioning pin that did not consistently lock the outer stage of the jack against its inner stage. Our attorney hired a mechanical engineer to confirm the existence of this problem by examining the jack that injured and trapped the welder’s hand.

A detailed report prepared by an engineer who had consulted on an earlier case involving a different defective drop leg jack clearly described a pin produced at the incorrect angle. The improper design of the pin rendered it unable to slot securely into a hole on the inner stage of the jack, making it prone to slipping free when the jack was placed under a normal load but shaken.

This and other information revealed through questioning personnel for the jack manufacturer under oath, interviewing trailer factory workers and working with the mechanical engineer produced solid, convincing evidence that a product defect existed. We also argued that the defect could have been discovered during routine quality checks. Records showed, however, that the U.S. company that purchased the poorly manufactured jacks in China had failed to even perform spot checks for design or production issues.

Faced with a civil lawsuit in which a judge would likely find the jack company responsible for selling a defective product that it should have known was unsafe, the company agreed to enter into mediation.

During the one-day mediation hearing, our Virginia defective product attorney showed a professionally edited 10-minute video and gave a PowerPoint presentation on why the industrial accident occurred and what the injury, amputation, and disability meant for his client.

The video opened with an interview with the welder, who described blood spurting everywhere when the jack slipped and crushed his right hand. He then spoke about how the permanent injury altered his life in negative ways. This was echoed by one of the welder’s friends who had also lost a limb and by the welder’s foreman. All three people mentioned things like not being able to shake hands in the customary fashion, having difficulty buttoning up blue jeans and finding it difficult to handle eating utensils.

The PowerPoint showed a vocational counselor’s calculations of the earnings our client would lose over a lifetime of no longer being able to work as a welder, as well as a lifecare planner/nurse consultant’s estimate of future medical costs. Comments from the welder’s hand surgeon provided insights into the reconstructive and amputation procedures needed to save what remained of the welder’s right hand.

The mediation resulted in an agreement under which our injured and disabled client received $750,000 from the jack company. Workers’ comp would continue paying his medical expenses for future hand surgeries and physical and occupational therapy.

This defective product case was litigated in Ohio. The company that sold the improperly manufactured drop leg jack was based in Ohio. 

Court: Ohio

Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, with the assistance of co-counsel