SANFORD – The widow of a Sanford man who died when he was pinned by a forklift in 2003 said she’s relieved that Maine’s highest court has found that equipment companies have a duty to inform those who buy their products of hazards, even if the equipment was purchased through a third party.
“I felt I had to do something,” said Claire Brown, widow of Tom Brown, who died in the mishap at Prime Tanning in August 2003. “This gets the word out there that (companies) have a responsibility to say something.”
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court last week ruled that Crown Equipment Corp. of Ohio had a duty to inform Prime Tanning Co. that a forklift posed a hazard. Tom Brown died when he became pinned between the forklift and a shelving unit.
He was apparently backing up the forklift when he hit a shelving rack at an estimated 3 m.p.h. The impact knocked his feet off the pedals, automatically engaging the emergency brake, according to Claire Brown’s law firm, Smith, Elliott, Smith and Garmey. Brown’s chest was compressed between the shelf and the dashboard of the forklift. He died of asphyxiation.
According to court documents, in 1995, Crown learned that a new shelf design in many warehouses exposed operators of the company’s forklifts to the risk of “horizontal entry,” i.e., the risk that shelving could enter the forklift at an unshielded level and strike the operator.
Between December 1989, when Crown manufactured Prime’s forklift, and August 1999, Crown received notices of 134 horizontal intrusion accidents, including more than 50 that resulted in serious injury or death. Until 1999, Crown took no action to warn customers about the significant horizontal intrusion hazard, nor did it tell anyone that operators were actually experiencing accidents resulting in serious injury and death.
In 1995, Crown developed a “backrest extension kit” for the forklift, reducing the risk of horizontal intrusions.
Crown Equipment Corp. sent a letter to customers informing them of a problem with the fork lift, but Prime Tanning didn’t get the letter because the machine wasn’t purchased directly from Crown.
The court documents also show that a Crown equipment Corp. employee visited Prime Tanning, but didn’t inform the company of the risk or that there was a kit to mitigate the hazard.
Claire Brown last week said her husband’s death has been very difficult- not only for her, but for her brother, who pulled her husband from between the machine and the shelving unit.
“This is the last thing I can really do for him.” Said Claire Brown of her husband.
The two were high school sweethearts.
“We never had a life without each other,” she said.
She said she hopes the verdict prevents future deaths.
A federal jury had originally awarded Brown $4.2 million but that was reduced to $1.5 million because of state caps on compensation. The award by the Maine Supreme Judicial court slightly raised the $1.5 million award.
Claire Brown had originally won the case in U.S. District Court in Portland, Crown equipment Corp. appealed to the First circuit Court in Boston, which certified two questions to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The decision by Maine’s highest court now goes back to the First Circuit.
Crown Equipment Corp. attorney Robert Stier was unable to be reached for comment.
Attorney Nicole Lorenzatti of Smith, Elliott, Smith & Garmey said based on the Maine court’s decision, the First Circuit must enter judgment for her client.
“There is a post sale duty to warn.” She said.
By: Tammy Wells
Source: Journal Tribune
Page: A1, A3