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Meyer v. Tapeswitch Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

November 16, 2017

MICA MEYER, individually and as representative of the estate of JOHN MEYER, deceased, MATTHEW MEYER, JULIA MEYER, and JOSHUA MEYER, Plaintiffs,
v.
TAPESWITCH CORPORATION, Defendant. And BRIDGESTONE AMERICAS TIRE OPERATIONS, INC., Intervening Plaintiff,

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The plaintiffs in this case are Mica Meyer, individually and as representative of the estate of John Meyer, deceased, and the deceased's children, Matthew Meyer, Julia Meyer, and Joshua Meyer. They bring suit against defendant Tapeswitch Corporation (“Tapeswitch”), alleging that a safety mat manufactured by Tapeswitch malfunctioned, causing John Meyer's death.[1] Now before the court is Tapeswitch's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 70). The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons set forth herein, the motion will be granted.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56 requires the court to grant a motion for summary judgment if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To win summary judgment on a particular claim, the moving defendant must show that, as a matter of undisputed material fact, the plaintiff cannot establish at least one essential element of that claim. Once the moving defendant makes its initial showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to provide evidence beyond the pleadings, “set[ting] forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Moldowan v. City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351, 374 (6th Cir. 2009); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). “In evaluating the evidence, the court must draw all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Moldowan, 578 F.3d at 374 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

         At this stage, “‘the judge's function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)). But “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient, ” and the party's proof must be more than “merely colorable.” Anderson, 477 U.S. 242, at 252. An issue of fact is “genuine” only if a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. Moldowan, 578 F.3d at 374 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. The Incident

         The facts in this case are largely undisputed, as established by the plaintiff's Response to the Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. No. 77) and the defendant's Reply Statement to Plaintiff's Statement of Additional Material Facts (Doc. No. 83). The parties disagree as to their interpretation of the facts.

         John Meyer was employed as a tire-builder by intervenor plaintiff Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, Inc. (“Bridgestone”) from 2010 until the date of the incident underlying this lawsuit, July 12, 2013 (“Incident”). When the Incident occurred, Meyer was operating a tire assembly machine (“TAM”), known as the “Charlie 1 TAM” or “C-1 TAM, ” at Bridgestone's tire plant in LaVergne, Tennessee. The operator of the C-1 TAM controls the machine with foot pedals and buttons. As explained by the Worksheet issued by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Occupational Safety and Health:

The Charlie 1 TAM builds truck tires out of small “sheets” of rubber that are put on in layers. There are 2 different stations on the machine that are used to build the tire. One of the stations consists of the builder drum, innerliner tray, and now-server. The tire is built around the drum, with the drum filling the “hole” of the tire. The drum allows the tire to be rotated as the operator applies the layers of rubber and adhesive. The innerliner tray is a small conveyor that brings the sheets of rubber down to the operator. The innerliner tray moves up and down on air cylinders. The now-server is a guide that helps the operator line up the sheets of rubber so that they go onto the tire straight. The now-server is attached to the innerliner tray, and is also operated with air cylinders. The operator stands directly in front of the drum to build the tire and cycle the machine with the foot pedals. The foot pedals are on the floor, directly below the outside edge of the drum.

(Doc. No. 70-1, at 1.)

         The innerliner tray and the now-server assist the operator in applying additional layers of rubber to the drum. (Id.) These components are pneumatically controlled and descend from above the drum when the operator calls on the machine to “cycle.” When they descend toward the drum, the innerliner tray and now-server pose a safety hazard: “When the innerliner tray and now-server are lowered into position, the space between the innerliner tray and drum is 5 inches and the space between the now-server and the drum is 3 inches.” (Id. at 1-2.)

         In July 2013, Bridgestone used a ControlMat Safety Mat (“Mat”) manufactured by Tapeswitch to prevent the innerliner tray from coming down on the tire-builder at any point in the process. As discussed in greater detail below, when the tire-builder stepped onto the Mat, the innerliner tray would ordinarily stop moving:

When the operator gets to the step where the innerliner tray and now-server are needed, the operator calls for the cycle (with the foot pedal or the button on the control panel), and then walks away to get the layers of rubber (BEI's) that are needed for the next step. Even though the operator calls for the cycle, the machine will not cycle until the operator steps off of the safety mat. When the machine cycles, the innerliner tray lowers down and comes to a stop, and then the now-server flips over into position so that the operator can line up and apply the next layer of rubber to the tire.

(Id.)

         On July 12, 2013, John Meyer was working at the C-1 TAM when he was caught in and crushed between the drum and the innerliner tray of the C-1 TAM. No one actually witnessed the Incident, and there were no security cameras facing the area where Meyer was working. Co-worker Brian Armstrong rushed to Meyer's machine as soon as he was alerted to the Incident. He found Meyer “laid over . . . the building drum, and the [innerliner] tray was on top of him.” (Armstrong Dep. 8:15-20, Doc. No. 78-7, at 2.) Armstrong testified that the Mat appeared to be in its correct position when he found Meyer. Various witnesses testified that, when they first saw Meyer caught in the machine, his feet were off the floor by as little as a half inch or as much as three inches.

         Because no one witnessed the Incident and Meyer's feet were off the ground when he was found, no one can say with absolute certainty whether his feet were on the Mat or whether, instead, he may have been standing on the railing above the C-1 TAM's foot pedals when the Incident occurred.

         Meyer received aid from first responders on-site before being flown to Vanderbilt Medical Center. However, as a result of the injuries sustained in this Incident, he died a week later.

         B. The Safety Mat

         Bridgestone purchased the Mat that is the subject of this litigation from Tapeswitch in May 2010, and it was delivered to Bridgestone on or about May 12, 2010. The plaintiff explains, and it is undisputed for purposes of the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, that the Mat is composed of eight switch elements that run the length of the Mat. Each switch element consists of two metal strips held apart by a plastic structure. The metal strips lie on top of one another and normally have a small space between them so that they are not in contact with each other. Two wires connect the top and bottom metal strips of one switch element to the corresponding metal strips of the next element, and the Mat is then electrically connected to a manufacturing machine. The Mat is designed so that, when an operator stands on it, the metal strips are compressed, closing the electrical circuit and causing the machine to which the Mat is connected to stop operation. (Compl. ¶¶ 13-15.)

         It is the plaintiff's position that the Mat malfunctioned while Meyer was working at the C-1 TAM, such that the machine did not shut off as it was supposed to do when Meyer stepped on the Mat. The Steelworkers Union conducted an investigation on July 15, 2013, a few days after the Incident, and concluded that the Mat did not function properly. Subsequent testing by the plaintiffs' expert in March 2016 confirmed that the Mat was not functioning properly. (Galler Report, Doc. No. 70-7, at 3.) Tapeswitch concedes, for purposes of its motion, that there is a disputed issue of fact as to whether several of the switch elements were malfunctioning at the time of Meyer's death, due to poorly soldered joints between the wires and the switch elements. According to the plaintiffs' expert, “small improvements in the soldering methods would have prevented joint failure.” (Id. at 9.)

         It is also undisputed, however, that the Mat should have been, but was not, connected to the C-1 TAM through a safety controller. Tapeswitch provided a shipping tag with the Mat at the time it was delivered to Bridgestone. (Doc. No. 70-5.) The shipping tag included a “Recommended Wiring Diagram” for a “Fail-Safe Supervised Circuit Concept” and an instruction to “[i]nterface this sensor to your machine with [a] Tapeswitch controller[].” (Id.)

         Tapeswitch also provided an Installation Manual with the mat. The Installation Manual had a warning in a box on its cover that instructs the installer to read all the instructions contained in the manual and to “correctly fit[]” the Mat to a “suitable machine”:

WARNING
Tapeswitch safety mat systems are intended to detect operators working at or near dangerous machinery and to send a signal to the safety control system. They can only perform this function if they are correctly fitted to a suitable machine. It is essential that the full contents of this manual and all the authoritative documents referred to herein are fully ...

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