February 11, 2007 – Rancho Cucamonga Superior Court, Rancho Cucamonga, CA
SANTA ANA—One morning in August 2004, a temporary worker only an hour into his third day at a new job at a wood-products factory reached into a glue-press machine to straighten out some planks.
The machine operator, distracted by a co-worker's question, pushed the twin buttons that brought down a nine foot, one-ton platen on top of Arturo Baez' neck. The 33-year-old father of two teenagers became a quadriplegic unable even to breath on his own.
Yet despite the very sympathetic victim, a Rancho Cucamonga jury took less than an hour to reject Baez's product-liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the glue press, Baez v. L&L Machinery Inc., RCV083256 (San Bernardino Super. Ct., verdict Feb. 10, 2007).
"This was a horrible injury, but we felt L&L was not responsible," lead defense attorney James J. Yukevich of Los Angeles' Yukevich Calfo & Cavanaugh said. "The jury made the right decision."
The plaintiffs' attorney, Edward Steinbrecher of Steinbrecher & Associates in Encino, had a different reaction.
"We were absolutely shocked," Steinbrecher said.
He said he believes he has a good chance at winning a new trial.
The attorneys agreed that two key areas of evidence made the difference during the five-week trial before San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Ben Kayashima. First, Yukevich convinced the jury that the 1984 machine had been modified by one of the two prior owners to remove a "stroke limiting" device that would have kept the platen from rising up enough to allow Baez to put his head under it.
Steinbrecher said the only modification was the addition of a device that cut the machine's wattage. Nevertheless, the jury found the machine had been "substantially modified," which put a quick end to the plaintiffs' defective-design claim.
The plaintiffs also claimed manufacturer L&L should have warned the wood company, Professional Wood Products Inc., that additional safety devices needed to be added to the machine. In particular, L&L had been installing "presence-sensing" electric eye devices in its new gluers since 1995, Steinbrecher said.
The plaintiffs' attorney said that what seemed to make the difference for the jury was testimony from L&Ls owner, who bought the machine-maker in 1992, that he had never heard of any injury caused by the gluer model involved.
Yukevich repeated that statement 45 times during closing argument, Steinbrecher said. This particular machine had clamped and heated glued wood pieces 1.5 billion times without an accident, the defense argued.
"I'll give him credit," Steinbrecher said of his opponent.
Those facts apparently convinced the jury that the machine was safe and that Professional Wood Products alone was at fault, as Yukevich argued. He told the jury that the wood company knew workers should stay away from the machine yet instructed Baez to go into it to straighten wood.
The only safety instruction the company gave him was "Just keep an eye open and be safe," Baez testified, according to Yukevich.
Baez claimed $4.3 million in past medical bills and $12.3 million in future medical expenses. Steinbrecher asked the jury to award him and his family $59.2 million.
Yukevich said much of the injured man's medical expenses have been paid by his temporary agency's workers' compensation carrier and by a settlement from Professional Wood Products.