January 16, 2018, PLLR E-Newsletter

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Seat, transmission defects led to scraper operator’s paralyzing injury

photo of scraper

The plaintiffs alleged that the scraper’s seat lacked adequate shock-absorbing capacity and that a defect in the machine’s transmission caused the scraper to buck up and down, causing the operator to suffer a spinal fracture. The parties settled after mediation for $7 million. French v. Caterpillar, Inc.
 

William French was operating a Caterpillar 657E wheel tractor scraper when the machine suddenly began bucking up and down.

During and after the incident, which lasted for several seconds, French felt pain in his lower back and immediately experienced a loss of feeling below the waist. Imaging revealed a compression burst fracture at L-2, and he underwent an emergency multi-level fusion to stabilize his spine. He spent more than a year in the hospital and rehabilitation facilities and incurred more than $700,000 in medical expenses. He now has incomplete paraplegia, with limited use of his legs, and he uses a wheelchair. His future care costs, including full-time attendant care, are estimated at more than $8 million. He is permanently disabled.

French and his wife sued Caterpillar, Inc., alleging that the scraper’s seat lacked adequate shock-absorbing capacity and that an error in the machine’s transmission was a cause of the bucking. The plaintiffs contended that the Caterpillar 657E at issue has been known to experience random transmission errors that cause it to skip gears and buck up and down violently. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendant failed to warn of the dangers posed by the faulty transmission design.

Caterpillar denied liability and argued that French was negligent for driving the scraper quickly over a series of bumps in the haul road and the general contractor on the project was negligent for maintaining the haul road in an unsafe condition.

Caterpillar also argued that the seat at issue had been modified from its original condition and was installed improperly by French’s employer so that it was too close to a seat anchor bolt. The defense argued that the bolt had damaged the bottom of the seat pan and that this was the likely cause of French’s injury.

Finally, Caterpillar argued that French’s employer was at fault for failing to properly maintain the scraper. The defense noted that the nitrogen accumulators for the machine’s cushion hitch system were found to be at zero during a post-incident investigation, which likely contributed to the machine bouncing.

The parties settled after mediation for $7 million, including $6.8 million to French and $200,000 to his wife for loss of services.

Citation: French v. Caterpillar, Inc., No. 30-2014-00728263-CU-PO-CJC (Cal. Super. Ct. Orange Cnty. July 6, 2017).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member Spencer R. Lucas, AAJ member Brian J. Panish, Jefferson Saylor, and AAJ member Jake Douglass, all of Los Angeles.

Plaintiff experts: Ed Fatzinger Jr., accident reconstruction, Torrance, Calif.; John Brault, biomechanics, Laguna Hills, Calif.; Eric Benstock, machine engineering, Houston; Gerald Fulgham, jobsite safety, Reno, Nev.; Jan Roughan, life care planning, Pasadena, Calif.; Rick Sarkisian, vocational rehabilitation, Fresno, Calif.; and Peter Formuzis, economics, Santa Ana, Calif

Defense experts: Timothy Rothrock, machine design, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; Daniel Pacheco, machine design, Chicago; Mark Gomez, biomechanics, San Diego; Tim Long, accident reconstruction, Laguna Hills; Pete Sullivan, machine maintenance, Houston; Tom Jennings, jobsite safety, Las Vegas; Joanne Latham, vocational rehabilitation, Simi Valley, Calif.; and Mary Jesko, life care planning, San Diego.