Lack Of Flesh-Sensing Technology On Table Saw Leads To Money-Sensing Lawsuits

Table SawIt probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that one the most amazing inventions in the power tool industry over the past 20 years is a table saw that can stop the blade virtually instantly when it comes into contact with skin. It’s an incredible product, but unfortunately, it has spawned numerous personal injury lawsuits, too. Here’s the story.

Using a patented braking system, the flesh-sensing technology can stop a spinning blade when it comes into contact with skin so quickly that it leaves a user with a minor cut instead of a lost finger. It was invented in 1999, but it’s still hard to find them in stores. One big reason is a fear of lawsuits. Many retailers are worried that if the blade doesn’t stop every time and someone is injured, they’ll be sued. In today’s litigious society, this is a constant and very real fear.

With thousands of the common table saws still being used, there are many people still being injured. One of those people is Victor Ingram.

According to an article in the legal publication, the Cook County Record, Ingram claims to have suffered permanent injuries after his fingers came in contact with the blade of a Sears Craftsman table saw. Even though the saw worked exactly as advertised and was safe when used properly, Ingram’s lawyer claimed the saw was “defectively designed” simply because it didn’t include flesh-sensing technology.

The lawsuit is still pending, but it’s likely that Ingram’s lawyer knows about other similar lawsuits, including one by a Massachusetts man who won $1.5 million. In that case, he was injured after removing the blade guard on the saw, but that didn’t stop him from being able to convince a jury that the real reason for his injury was that his saw was defective because it didn’t have the saw stop technology. Read more about that at FineWoodWorking.com.

Now, I want to be clear, it would be wonderful to see this technology on every saw in America. But it would also be wonderful if all cars were as safe as Sherman tanks. The reality is, that’s just not realistic. If courts are going to require product makers to put every expensive innovation on their products that might be available, many consumers won’t be able to afford the things they need, and some products won’t come to market for fear of lawsuits.

More and more these days, judges and juries are being asked to overlook personal responsibility in order to award someone money who was injured by a product that is safe when used correctly. That is the real issue here.

While Space Exploration Fuels Innovation, Legal Fears Often Keep Innovation Grounded

SpaceWith Pluto-mania sweeping the nation, we used our “Let’s Be Fair” radio commentary this week to recognize some of the ways that consumers have benefited from space exploration, and how we might still benefit in the future if liability concerns don’t stall innovation.

Modern conveniences like cell phone cameras, scratch-resistant lenses for sunglasses, water purification systems, and CAT scans were all originally developed by NASA. Yes, if you have ever been treated with a CAT scanner or know of a loved one who has, you have the space program to thank for this. This cancer-detecting tech was first used to find imperfections in space components.

Because of the brilliant minds working at NASA, it often seems like the only limit on what we can create is our own imagination. Unfortunately, one of the barriers to innovation is entirely man-made and unique to America: legal fear.

For example, at this time, a device invented by a former NASA engineer that could save lives by making it impossible to text, talk or email on a cell phone while driving is being kept off the market — in large part – because of fears about lawsuits. In a previous blog post, I explained how legal fear was stalling the rollout of this amazing technology even though the entrepreneur who developed it got two heavyweights in the insurance and cell phone industries to support his efforts.

The number of new consumer products that have been kept out of the market certainly includes many more than those developed by NASA engineers, however. John Stossel identified a number of these in an excellent article a few years ago. They include things like hypodermic needles that cause less pain to patients, a substitute for asbestos, and a medicine that relieves morning sickness for pregnant women suffering from nausea.

The morning sickness medicine, Bendectin, was finally returned to the U.S. market in 2013, 30 years after the manufacturer pulled it off shelves here in response to lawsuits that later turned out to be completely unfounded. All during those three decades, women in Canada and Europe benefited from the relief provided by Bendectin while women in the U.S. suffered unnecessarily from their nausea.

Over the years, I have talked with many entrepreneurs who either decided not to bring products to market, or who have chosen not to provide consumer-friendly modifications to their products, because of concerns over being sued. These legal concerns do not tie the hands of innovators in any other country in the world, and the real losers are American consumers.

The negative effect that lawsuit abuse has on product development and innovation is as much of a concern to consumers at the extra money we all pay for products that do make it to market.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and xedos4.

Op-Ed: The Land Of Opportunity Is Now More Like Legal Quicksand

Lawyer, bestselling author and reform activist Philip K. Howard wrote an excellent op-ed recently about how runaway litigation is choking innovation in America, and it deserves more attention.

As the author of “The Death of Common Sense” and the founder of the legal reform group, Common Good, Howard has done yeoman’s work in exposing how lawsuit abuse is crushing innovation in the United States.  He and I have worked together in the past to get leaders of both political parties to consider innovative legal reform ideas, and his latest op-ed reveals very clearly to these leaders exactly how urgent the need for legal reform has become in 2010.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Howard nails America’s current litigation problem right on the head when he says:

“…the land of opportunity is more like legal quicksand. Small business owners face legal challenges at every step. Municipalities requires multiple and often nonsensical forms to do business. Labor laws expose them to legal threats by any disgruntled employee. Mandates to provide costly employment benefits impose high hurdles to hiring new employees. Well-meaning but impossibly complex laws impose requirements to prevent consumer fraud, provide disability access, prevent hiring illegal immigrants, display warnings and notices and prevent scores of other potential evils. The tax code is incomprehensible.

All of this requires legal and other overhead – costing 50% more per employee for small businesses than big businesses.

The sheer volume of law suffocates innovative instincts, while distrust of lawsuits discourages ordinary human choices…”

Howard goes on to argue that innovation, the precious commodity that has fueled our nation’s economic might over the years, is being discouraged at every turn by overzealous personal injury lawyers and their allies.

How are we going to innovate our way to an economic recovery when we’re constantly looking over our shoulder for the next lawsuit?

He isn’t the only one to make headlines by pointing out that litigation is inhibiting job-producing innovation.  At a major forum of business, political and academic leaders in August, Intel’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Otellini, predicted that “the next big thing will not be invented here” unless government policies are altered.  He says that America is losing its edge, and one of the main reasons is that the U.S. legal environment has become hostile to business.

When the leader of one of the most successful high tech companies in the world and a respected lawyer who has worked on reform with leaders from both sides of the political aisle say that lawsuits are discouraging invention, how much more of a wake-up call do our political leaders need?  It’s time for elected officials in Washington D.C. and in state capitols around the country to make legal reform the priority it deserves to be.