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Employer’s Liability – Top Of Dry Cleaner Steam Press Locks After It Descends While In Use By Plaintiff Employee


This case involved a plaintiff employee of a dry cleaning establishment who was pressing pants when the top of the machine descended and the top locked, rather than close for an instant only before popping up as designed. The plaintiff contended that the defendant service person was called to the cleaners six and a half weeks earlier for unrelated difficulties and that he negligently failed to inspect the fail safe device as is required by industry standards whenever the press is serviced. The plaintiff contended that the pneumatically operated press, that uses steam at an approximate temperature of 212°F, locked and continued to burn him for a prolonged period of some seconds.

The plaintiff maintained that even if the poor condition of the machine permitted the top to descend in the first instance the top of the machine would not have locked and the plaintiff would have suffered superficial burns if the machine had been properly inspected and serviced by the defendant. The plaintiff had also initially named the manufacturer on a products liability theory, but this aspect was dismissed. The plaintiff contended that he suffered severe second and third degree burns to both arms and hands, with the left, non-dominant hand suffering the worst burns.

The evidence disclosed that as the plaintiff was arranging pants on the buck, or table portion of the press, the top suddenly slammed down and locked on his arms. The plaintiff hit the release bar with his knee, but the head of the press did not open. The plaintiff was able to pull his right arm free and he began pressing on the release bar of the press. The plaintiff’s left arm was still stuck in the steam press, when the head ultimately opened.

The steam press in question has a safety device, a closing cylinder safety adjustment that prevents the head of the press from locking when a presser’s arms and/or hands are between the head and the buck, irrespective of the cause of the malfunction that results in the head descending. The manual for the press indicates that the closing cylinder safety device must be adjusted so that the press cannot lock if the head of the press is more than a half inch from the buck. The proofs reflected that six and a half weeks earlier, the defendant was called to the premises by the owner because the press was leaking air and not locking. The defendant rebuilt three valves and replaced a cylinder cup in the locking cylinder of the machine.

The plaintiff established that industry standard provide that in order to maintain laundry equipment in a safe operating condition, all the safety devices must be inspected when the machine is serviced and that a log should be kept of all repairs and maintenance work performed to equipment, indicating the date, description of work, and by whom the work was performed. The log should be retained for at least five years.

The plaintiff maintained that the defendant was required to check the closing cylinder safety adjustment prior to leaving the premises. The plaintiff would have contended that in order to properly do so, the repair person must place an object a half inch or thicker on the buck, close the press, and test for high pressure, that would enable the press to lock if the head descended. The plaintiff contended that if the defendant had done so, he would have been alerted that the closing cylinder safety adjustment was out of adjustment. In such a situation, the manual instructs the repair person to loosen a lock nut on the closing cylinder piston rod, turn the rod one full turn, and then recheck the machine.

The defendant contended that he serviced the machine properly and that a maladjusted mercury switch would not have overridden a properly adjusted closing cylinder safety. The plaintiff maintained that the safety, if properly adjusted, is designed to prevent the machine from locking on an object that is greater than a half inch in thickness, if there is a malfunction of one or more components of the machine, which includes a malfunction due to a maladjusted mercury switch. The plaintiff also contended that the only person who repaired the machine during said time-period was the defendant and that if switch was adjusted during that time-period; it would have been the defendant who did so.

The defendant denied that the service-person adjusted the mercury switch. The defendant also maintained that the head would not have descended unless the rod on the back of the machine had been misused by the workers and bent in the interim since his service call. The defendant further contended that he he advised the employer to take the machine out of service and that the failure of the employer to do so was the sole proximate cause of the incident. The employer denied being so advised. The plaintiff would have also pointed to the absence of documentation to support the defense position that such instructions were given to the employer.The plaintiff’s burn specialist maintained that if the plaintiff had been exposed for a moment only, he would have suffered superficial burns. The plaintiff contended that because of the extended presence of the top of the press on his hands, he suffered burns to approximately six and a half percent of his total body, including his hands, the right forearm, the left forearm, and the left upper arm. The burn wounds on the right hand and forearm were second degree burns. The burn wounds on the right hand and forearm were second degree burns. The burn wounds on the left arm were classified as third degree burns, with very severe injuries to the left, non-dominant hand that reached the bone.

The plaintiff was hospitalized for approximately three months, required repeated debridements and some ten surgeries. The operations included the placement of steel wires in the digits to minimize deformity, and plastic surgeries were performed to separate the digits and mold the skin around them. The plaintiff required pressure garments for almost one and a half years.

The plaintiff contended that he will suffer permanent pain, scarring and embarrassment, as well as difficulties in engaging in everyday tasks. The plaintiff is unmarried. The plaintiff has regained functioning of the hands and currently works as a waiter.

The case settled prior to trial for $1,000,000.00.

Plaintiff’s burn specialist experts: Mokhtar Asaadi, M.D., and E. Hani Mansour, M.D. from Livingston, NJ. Plaintiff’s industrial engineering expert: Harold Ehrlich from White Plains, NY.
H.B. v. B.B.D.C., et. al. Docket No. SOM-L-1142-08, 04-21-12
Attorneys for plaintiff: Charles A. Cerussi and Jaclyn A. Gannon of Cerussi & Gunn, P.C. in Shrewsbury, NJ.

The evidence disclosed that the top closed as the plaintiff was using the pressing machine because a number of devices malfunctioned. The plaintiff contented that, notwithstanding the malfunctions that caused the press to close, the defendant’s failure to check the fail safe device that would have prevented the machine from locking in the event the top closed. If the safety was properly adjusted the top would have opened immediately upon contacted his arms and hands and his injuries would have been less severe. Finally, it should be noted that despite the hand burns, the plaintiff recovered sufficiently well to be currently employed as a waiter.