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Why a Safer Table Saw May Not Be Good for America


We live in a highly litigious country. So when a Boston jury awarded $1.5 million to a Malden man who injured his fingers on a saw I wasn’t terribly surprised. What did surprise me was that this case was actually the first to claim that the standard design of American table saws is defective. Really? Defective? That’s an awfully strong word. Everyone likes the idea of a safer table saw, but mandating it is another thing.

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Table Saw Lawsuit Case History

The case began several years ago when Carlos Osorio cut off and injured several of his fingers while installing oak floors. Carlos accused One World Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of TTI and maker of Ryobi saws, of “negligence for failing to include a flesh detection technology that would prevent most serious injuries”. The complaint was initially filed in 2006 in US District Court in Boston.

The problem with the complaint of course is that it presumes there was something wrong with the table saw and that the product could have been designed better, in 2006, so as to prevent injuries. Now, it’s important to note that there is a vast difference between claiming that a tool is defective and lamenting the lack of a particular safety feature that could prevent accidents due to negligence. This is where we depart with, in our opinion, an over-exuberant and out of control Court system.

Why We Think a Safer Table Saw May Not Be Good for America

There are a few reasons for our up-front disagreement:

  • Ruling that a product should have a feature for which it was not designed means, presumably, that every car accident victim in America should now be able to retroactively sue for any vehicle not in possession of anti-lock brakes.
  • Ryobi would suddenly become a high-end tool company – not because the quality of their tools would suddenly target professionals, but because it would now be impossible to manufacture an inexpensive saw geared towards the casual user due to increased parts costs.
  • Table saws would become a high-end product and the elimination of entry level models would mean greater danger for those who would substitute the wrong tool for jobs that require it.
  • Why stop at table saws? Every tool manufactured with a blade must now have this new technology or face being labeled in the future as “unsafe” and “defective”.

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Room for Compassion and Common Sense

While it’s lamentable that two of Carlos Osorio’s fingers are permanently disfigured and unusable, and he has suffered numbness and loss of feeling in three other fingers, the bottom line is that his accident was not caused by a defective tool. If it was then the tool would have malfunctioned against its original design, not some imaginary design parameter that he felt it should have had.

Anyone who has followed this legal drama realizes that the driving force behind it is the owner and manufacturer of SawStop, a technology company that invented a table saw tech that senses capacitance of a finger and immediately stops the blade. They have been active in mandating this technology across all table saws. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t doing this out of goodwill – they want to license it and make a fortune. Quite simply, SawStop wants to legislate itself into millions.

Consumer Burdens and Product Availability

Verdicts like this are irresponsible and place an unnecessary burden on the consumer, artificially change the marketplace, and have rippling effects that go far beyond the apparent short-sightedness of judges and juries who appear to not understand the ramifications of their actions.

One World Technologies said it had been advised of the verdict and their spokesman, Jason Swanson, had this to say: “We are evaluating the results with our lawyers, and evaluating how to proceed. Notwithstanding the outcome of this trial and any possible appeal, we remain confident that the saw which was the subject of this lawsuit was well-designed and manufactured with all due consideration for the needs and safety of the consumer.”

Over 50 Lawsuits Pending

To make it plan how serious these efforts are, there are over 50 lawsuits pending throughout the United States against the major table saw manufacturers for failure to adopt the SawStop technology. No one is questioning whether or not the advanced technology works. What is being questioned, with only mild success, is whether the SawStop technology should be able to be mandated. If the answer to that question is “yes” then expect the cost of power tools to go up significantly as the legal system involves itself in a level of corporate intrusion that hasn’t been seen in years.

Editor’s Note: This year (2010) UL changed its requirements for approval of table saws to include several new features including a riving knife and other safety features to help prevent accidents. It’s not that we don’t want a safer table saw, but if the judiciary is going to insist that table saws necessarily include additional safety features, then those features should be made possible without having to pay a single company (SawStop) expensive, proprietary licensing fees. We also feel that further research should be undertaken by independent professionals and disagree that any of this represents a “defective” current technology.

Conclusion

Considering that Carlos’ fingers should never have been anywhere near the blade, this lawsuit—and others like it—should never have seen the light of day. Construction professionals, journeymen, and homeowners should prepare for the onslaught because if this ruling represents the tip of the iceberg, there is no telling where this judicial intrusion will end. This could make the McDonald’s “defective” hot coffee incident seem like child’s play.

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