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Thumbless Machinist May Sue Manufacturer

(CN) - A global manufacturer whose solder machine mostly tore off a circuit-board assembler's two thumbs may be liable, a federal judge ruled.

Mary Hettinger had worked as a circuit-board assembler at K-Tron Electronics in Pitman, N.J., for over 20 years when the accident occurred during a night shift on Sept. 29, 2011.

While shutting down the Econopak Plus Wave solder machine that night, Hettinger stood near the factory wall, behind the molten solder pot, waiting for it to automatically roll out of the back of the machine toward her, as she had done without issue for over a decade.

Hettinger says she was "holding the canvas" - the thermal blanket used to cover the pot before the operator brings it back into the machine - when the machine "spindled out" and "caught" the fabric, sucking it back in on the rotating roll-out shaft or spindle.

She then pulled "really hard" to remove her hands from the canvas and heard a pop.

After removing her hands from the canvas, Hettinger saw that the top of her right thumb was coming off and her left thumb had severed.

Hettinger sued the machine's designer, Speedline Technology Inc., and others in Camden, but Speedline has challenged Hettinger's description of the accident based on her purported memory lapses. Unable to remember how the incident occurred, Hettinger "does not actually know if the blanket got caught on the smooth unthreaded shaft," Speedline told the court.

Hettinger argues that the shaft was not "smooth, unthreaded and cylindrical," but rusty with a hexagonal head on the end, as demonstrated by photographs.

Indeed, while designing the machine, Speedline admittedly did not test the spindle for risk of entanglement, and the manual has no warnings about the roll-out shaft or instructions on how to apply the canvas to the pot, let alone when to replace old blankets.

An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that "the employer should have had guarded the metal rotating bar at the rear of the ... machine."

Steven Batterman, a forensic engineer whom Hettinger has tapped as an expert for her lawsuit, testified that the roll-out shaft should be either guarded or shortened so it does not protrude through the door of the stand.

U.S. District Judge Renee Bumb declined to exclude Batterman's testimony Wednesday, and she refused the defendant partial summary judgment.

Though Speedline had said that the failure-to-warn claim fails because the alleged risk was open and obvious, Hettinger argued "that it was not the hot solder that injured her; instead it was the exposed roll-out shaft and the application of the thermal blanket," according to the ruling.

"Thus, plaintiff argues that the danger posed by the pot of hot solder is irrelevant," the unpublished ruling states. "This court agrees. Defendant has pointed to no evidence of record demonstrating that the alleged danger from the roll-out shaft was open and obvious and, further, has not shown this court that a reasonable person would recognize the danger presented by the roll-out shaft."

The court rejected Speedline's claim that Hettinger has no memory of what occurred.

"Plaintiff's testimony speaks to the issue of causation," Bumb wrote. "To the extent defendant maintains that her recollection is not credible, any credibility issues are appropriately resolved by a jury."

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