Gail Shipman, the widow of Roy M. Shipman Jr., has brought a wrongful death and product liability claim against Arco Industrial Sales Inc., Arco Packaging/Janitorial Sales, and the Signode Industrial Group LLC. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania's Eastern District seeking exemplary damages, interest and court costs. Roy Shipman died after being crushed by a bundle of falling polypropylene pipes that had been banded together using Tenax brand banding on a flat-bed truck. The claim accuses the defendants of demonstrating negligence by using banding of insufficient strength and failing to warn others about the dangerous condition that existed.
The Signode Industrial Group is a manufacturer of several strapping products that are used for bundling. Their Tenax strapping is made of polyester used in heavy-duty applications such as baling, bundling and palletizing. They also produce a Contrax product made of polypropylene that is made for lighter applications such as sealing cartons. Written company data explains that users of these strapping products should always refer to the American Society for Testing Materials specifications when choosing an appropriate product for a particular application. The straps are classified according to strength and the company says those in doubt regarding proper strap selection should contact a company representative for assistance.
The plaintiffs are pursuing punitive damages, also commonly known as exemplary damages, in this case. These rarely awarded damages are only appropriate when the defendant's actions are determined to be intentional, fraudulent, committed with reckless indifference, or are malicious in nature. They are awarded to serve as both a punishment and as a deterrent to those who could potentially conduct similar acts.
Key Considerations for Punitive Damages
The U.S. Supreme Court has not formally created a specific formula to be used in calculating an award for punitive damages. Three key factors may be considered in determining if punitive damages are excessive or not:
- The level (degree) of “reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct;” obviously a subjective assessment
- The difference between the harm incurred and the potential harm that could have been incurred
- Comparing the jury's punitive damage award to those found in comparable cases in recent times
The U.S. Supreme Court has advised that the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages should not exceed 4:1. Some state courts have well exceeded these guidelines up to levels of 16:1 at times. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's has allowed for a ratio of up to 10:1 in the past.
Those who manufacture, distribute or sell consumer products may potentially face liability when injuries, fatalities, or damage to property is caused by their product. Product liability cases generally stem from defects in manufacturing, defects in design, or failing to warn of potential dangers. Defects in manufacturing are those usually occurring during production. Common reasons for a defect include a lack of quality control and usage of poor quality materials or components. Manufacturers ordinarily do not have a duty to warn when their products present a clear and obvious danger, such as a kitchen knife that is sharp.