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Our client was a 29-year-old heavy equipment operator who suffered a near-amputation of his foot. The settling Defendants were the worker’s employer and the equipment maintenance company. The incident occurred when the front fork of a large tow motor, on which the parking brake had been set, rolled into the Plaintiff’s ankle. Our client’s claims were based on the defectiveness of the parking brake and the failure to repair it despite knowledge of its defective condition.
Our client’s job duties required him to operate the tow motor to move heavy pots filled with molten metal. During this process, the plaintiff would set down a full pot in the yard and apply the parking brake before exiting the cab. On this particular day, he applied the brake, exited the cab, and was tightening the lid on a pot, when the tow motor suddenly rolled forward. One of the forks speared his leg just above the ankle, severing it partway through the bone. Immediately afterward, the plant manager verified that the parking brake was set and took written statements from an employee who heard the parking brake engage and saw the tow motor roll forward.
Prior to this incident, the tow motor operator on a prior shift notified the employer that, during the week before the Plaintiff’s injury, the parking brake was not holding. Nevertheless, the vehicle was not taken out of service, nor did management call anyone to inspect or repair it. The employer’s plant manager testified that if management had been notified that the parking brake was not holding the tow motor in place after it was engaged, it was mandatory that the tow motor be removed from service. He also testified that leaving it in service after such notification created a dangerous condition where injury was substantially certain to occur.
The tow motor was maintained by an outside contractor. This co-defendant determined several months before the accident that the tow motor’s brake system was full of oil sludge and needed to be flushed. It also determined that the parking brake’s spring brake chamber needed to be replaced. The co-defendant’s mechanic testified that if the spring brake chamber had sludge in it the parking brake would not hold the tow motor in place. There was, however, no evidence in the maintenance records kept by this co-defendant that the entire brake system was ever flushed and the spring brake chamber was not replaced until after the accident.
Plaintiff’s engineering expert testified that the spring brake chamber was contaminated with sludge, causing the brake shoes not to fully engage, thus allowing the tow motor to move after the parking brake was applied. Plaintiff’s expert also testified that the vehicle should have been removed from service immediately after the malfunction had been reported, and that it should not have been put back into service until they could either explain the episodic failure or fix it. The treating physician testified that the Plaintiff sustained a near amputation injury, which makes it impossible for him to return to this type of work, and that he is now relegated to sedentary or light duty jobs.
The employer’s experts opined that the Plaintiff’s engineering expert’s theory was impossible and there was no real explanation for the accident. The maintenance company hired an expert who opined that the parking brake must not have been applied by the Plaintiff when he exited the cab. The orthopaedic surgeon retained by the employer to examine the Plaintiff opined that his near-amputation injury was caused by him tripping and falling over the fork rather than by the fork rolling into him. That surgeon did concede, however, that in his 40 years of trauma surgery he never saw this type of injury caused by a trip and fall, nor had he heard or read of such an occurrence in the medical literature.