There are normal injuries sustained from everyday activities like fender benders or slip-and-falls. And there are catastrophic injuries from asphalt melters that fall on your head. Brian Goodrich of Oxford, Massachusetts sustained the latter, suffering permanent disfigurement to his face and skull, permanent blindness in one eye, and loss of “even remedial cognitive function.”

And last week a jury awarded Goodrich and his family $8.25 million, determining that the melter’s designers were more than 50 percent at fault for the accident.

A Factual Dispute

In some accidents, more than one party can be at fault. Cimline Inc., Garlock Equipment Inc., and parent company Plymouth Industries Inc. argued that Goodrich failed to use a safety pin with a jack while changing the machine’s oil. Goodrich, in turned, argued that the companies failed to include a warning on the asphalt melter or in its manual detailing the dangers of failing to use the pin.

Judge Timothy S. Hillman allowed the case to go to trial in January, after hearing both sides. “I find the lack of warning and instructions with regards to use of the jacking system, especially considering the warnings and instructions provided for other ‘obvious’ perceived dangers,” he wrote at the time, “provide a factual dispute in which a reasonable fact finder could infer that the plaintiff’s use of the unpinned jack was reasonably foreseeable.”

Judge Hillman also noted that the companies’ safety engineer, Richard Stoffels, testified he was not actually a licensed engineer at all, and was still “a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree in engineering.” Stoffels, according to Judge Hillman, “is responsible for the design and safety of the melter,” and the companies provided no evidence that they ever performed a “hazard safety analysis” on the product.

Fractions of Liability

After the trial, jurors determined the companies were 52.5 percent at fault for the accident, while Goodrich was 47.5 percent at fault. Under Massachusetts negligence laws, the threshold is 50 percent for a plaintiff to recover for injuries:

Contributory negligence does not bar recovery so long as the plaintiff’s negligence is not greater than that of the defendant. But, any damages awarded are diminished in proportion to plaintiff’s attributed negligence. If there are multiple defendants, the plaintiff’s negligence is compared to the total combined negligence of all defendants.

State injury laws can vary when it comes to contributory or comparative negligence. If you have questions about a possible injury lawsuit, contact an experienced injury attorney in your state.

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