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Elias Garcia v. Becker Bros. Steel Co.

April 18, 2011

ELIAS GARCIA, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
BECKER BROS. STEEL CO., ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Elizabeth A. White, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC345854)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Woods, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Affirmed.

INTRODUCTION

In 1973, the defendant bought "slitter line" machinery for use in operating its steel business. After 26 years, the defendant sold the slitter line to another company. After that company ceased operations, the equipment was repossessed by the bank and then bought by the plaintiff's employer. In 2004, the plaintiff was injured and sued the machine's original owner for negligence and "wanton, reckless and conscious disregard of safety," but the original owner moved for summary judgment, arguing it owed the plaintiff no duty. The trial court granted the summary judgment motion, and the plaintiff appeals. We affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In October 2004, in the course of his employment at Lexwest, Elias Garcia was injured while using a machine on a "slitter line" manufactured by Cincinnati Incorporated and owned by his employer.*fn1 As a result, his left index finger was amputated.

The original slitter line was sold to Becker Brothers Steel Supply Company in 1973, and Becker Brothers operated the line for 26 years.*fn2 In 1984, the Shama Partnership, predecessor to Shama LLC, purchased an additional component machine (a "tension stand" or "tensioner") and added it to the slitter line operated by Becker Brothers.*fn3

In 1999, Becker Brothers/Shama LLC sold the slitter line to Columbia Steel LLC. During the 26 years Becker Brothers operated the slitter line, it slit approximately 10 to 12 steel rolls each 8-hour working day, 5 days per week, for a conservative estimate of 65,000 total times. During that time, there was one injury at the same location on the recoiler. That worker lost the tip of his finger.

By March 2001, Columbia Steel LLC had ceased doing business, the Cincinnati Incorporated slitter line was repossessed by the bank, and Garcia's employer (Lexwest) purchased it, assuming the lease of the building owned by Shama LLC and operating the slitter line at the same location. After 1999, there were no injuries at the location other than Garcia's.

Garcia's work-related injury was investigated by CAL/OSHA engineer Miguel Vargas who issued a citation to Lexwest for violation of California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 4002 (Moving Parts of Machinery or Equipment) in January 2005.*fn4 According to the citation, "On 10/14/04, a slitter operator helper was finishing up a metal coil. At the end of the coil the operator assistant was handling the end of [the] metal strap [sic] being coiled as he was jogging the re-coiler forward. He noticed that the metal strip being coiled was moving in an oscillating motion; therefore, he placed his gloved left hand on top of the metal strip in order to stop the motion and his left hand was pulled into the nip point created by the re-coiler guide and the newly formed coil severing his left index finger and degloving his left middle finger. The area between the re-coiler guide and the side of the coil present a squeezing hazard to employees, and was not guarded by the frame of the machine or by location in a manner which would prevent inadvertent contact with the hands of the operator's helper."

In responding to the citation, Lexwest's former vice president of operations (William Huyser) asserted it was not possible to place a guard on the recoiler and still operate the machine. CAL/OSHA determined Lexwest had abated the section 4002 violation in two ways: (1) by relocating the buttons on the overarm of the recoiler so the operator had to have both hands on the buttons when jogging the recoiler and (2) by adopting five safety procedure rules addressing when workers could be near the recoiler; Lexwest was not required to and did not put a guard on the recoiler. Garcia filed a complaint against the manufacturer of the slitter line (Cincinnati Incorporated), asserting negligence and strict liability claims relating to the slitter line as a defective product.*fn5 Three years later, Garcia amended his complaint to add Becker Brothers and Shama LLC as defendants. As to these defendants, Garcia added a sixth cause of action for "wanton, reckless and conscious disregard of safety."*fn6

According to the allegations of his first amended complaint, on February 6, 1976, Cincinnati Incorporated sent Becker Brothers a written notice stating the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) was in the process of finalizing machine safety standards for the slitter line, recommending that Becker Brothers "take immediate steps to provide safeguarding for your equipment if you have not already done so," which included guarding the recoiler to prevent accidental entry of body parts as described in the enclosed draft standards, but Becker Brothers made no modifications.

On January 31, 1980, Garcia alleged, Cincinnati Incorporated sent Becker Brothers specifications for a warning sign to be affixed to the recoiler, recommending the use of a "snubber" to control the tension of the rewound steel that could otherwise cause a "clockspring" effect endangering workers when the steel was pulled through the recoiler when the rewound steel roll expanded, even ...


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