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Punitive Damages Denied in Baby’s Shredder Injury

(CN) - Staples must face a lawsuit after a baby lost part of her fingers in a paper shredder when her mom turned away to get candy, a federal judge ruled.

Amy Thomas had been shredding mail in a MailMate paper shredder in her kitchen in Dallas, Pa., on the morning of May 25, 2008, when her 19-month-old daughter Madalyn started crying and pulling on her mother's leg, according to the complaint.

While the shredder was still operating, Thomas placed Madalyn on her left hip and turned away to get the baby some candy, the complaint states.

But when Thomas turned back around, she allegedly saw that her baby's left hand had gotten stuck in the shredder.

Thomas then unplugged the machine, and her husband, Jason, used a crowbar to take their daughter's hand out of the shredder, the family says.

Madalyn was then taken to a nearby hospital and soon transferred to Hershey Medical Center for surgery, according to the complaint.

The baby's two partially amputated fingers could not be reattached, her parents say.

Thomas had allegedly bought the shredder from Staples.com in November 2006 to keep her family's "junk mail" under control and secure their personal information.

The family sued Staples Inc. on Aug. 18, 2009, and added the shredder's manufacturer, Executive Machines Inc. dba Jeam Imports, as a defendant in 2010.

The amended complaint asserts claims for strict liability, negligence, breach of express and implied warranty, and compensatory and punitive damages.

In a 2011 third-party complaint, Staples and Executive Machines claimed that the incident stemmed from the carelessness and negligence of Madalyn's parents.

Though Staples says the shredder complied with Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, Chief U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker found on March 4 that the defendants could not pin the incident on "user misuse."

Here, an expert for the family testified that Madalyn's fingers were likely "pinched and pulled" into the machine, in that she probably could not have pushed them "all the way to the blades."

While the design defect claim survived, the court granted the companies summary judgment on their failure to warn claim.

"Amy Thomas, by her own admission, recognized the danger that a shredder presents to young children," Tucker wrote. "She had read the owner's manual, and she understood the meanings of all the picture warnings on the shredder itself. These admissions, coupled with the aforementioned warnings, negate plaintiffs' failure to warn claim. There is nothing which suggests that any member of the Thomas family would have altered his or her behavior if additional or different warnings were in place at the time of the incident. Simply put, given the obviousness of this risk, the adults' knowledge of the dangers that a shredder presents to young children, and the warnings discussed, there is not sufficient evidence to establish with some reasonable likelihood that any additional warnings would have prevented Madalyn's injury."

Though the court found that Staples and the manufacturer should have added child-safety features to the shredder, it awarded them summary judgment on the breach of warranty claims.

Punitive damages are not supported, however, by the relative simplicity and low cost of adding child safety features to the paper shredder; the Safety Commission's publication warning of possible finger injuries; and Staples' knowledge of the risk of finger injuries from prior litigation, according to the ruling.

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