$1.5 Million Verdict for a Company that Can’t Adopt a New Technology

There’s this new technology called SawStop (click for a video demonstration – it’s not at all violent, but a few bits might be cringe-inducing nonetheless). It’s currently quite expensive, but it’s very, very impressive. Essentially, it’s capable of stopping and retracting the blade of a table saw the instant anybody’s skin comes in contact with it, protecting the user from serious injury. It appears that, at worst, the user might sustain a minor knick.

It would be wonderful if such technology became standard in table saws (imagine a world in which every woodshop teacher has all 10 fingers!). There’s a problem, however. It’s expensive, and it only works once (the blade and SawStop module are destroyed if it is activated. They can be replaced, but they’re not cheap).

So, it would clearly be very difficult for every manufacturer to add this technology to its products, unless the price comes down significantly.

At what point, then, should lack of such a feature in a table saw render it defective? Right now, according to a Boston jury. A man was using a saw which didn’t have this feature, and injured his hand in the process. It seems undisputed that this technology would have prevented his injuries. He sued the manufacturer of his saw, claiming that it was inherently defective because it lacked the SawStop technology. The saw maker had been in negotiations to license the technology, but the talks broke down, presumably due to the cost of licensing and implementing it.

The jury awarded him $1.5 million.

Now, to be clear, I am all for holding manufacturers liable for truly defective products – products which are unreasonably dangerous, even when they’re used as the manufacturer intended.

But this seems like a road we may not want to go down. One of the factors that courts usually consider when deciding if a product is defective is whether or not it could be made significantly safer, without seriously diminishing its usefulness, and at a reasonable cost. SawStop technology seems to meet the first 2 prongs of that test – it makes saws much safer, and they seem to be just as useful as they are without it. But it fails the final prong – it’s really expensive.

Furthermore, most saw makers declined to license this technology precisely because it would be too expensive for them, and for consumers, to implement. So if this verdict stands, it would mean that at least one court is saying that almost every table saw in America is inherently defective.

Over at TechDirt, a critic of the patent system (whose criticisms I don’t always agree with, but that’s for another post) notes that this verdict effectively punishes the saw manufacturer for not infringing upon SawStop’s patents. After all, they couldn’t afford to license the technology, so their only alternative would have been to use it without the owner’s permission – classic patent infringement. I don’t necessarily think that the parade of horribles that the author of the above post presents will actually come to pass. Still, the implications of this verdict are disturbing. If we follow some of the premises behind patent and products liability law to their logical conclusions, we could come to the bizarre result that SawStop effectively has a right to dictate who is allowed to make table saws.

Think about it – SawStop has an exclusive right to market its technology, under patent law. But now, under products liability law (according to at least one court) a saw not featuring the SawStop tech is inherently defective, so the manufacturer is subject to strict liability for every injury caused by the product, thereby making such products economically infeasible to sell. SawStop gets to decide who can use its technology, thereby deciding who can make table saws.

In reality, such a situation probably won’t come to pass. However, the mere fact that the law makes such a scenario at least technically possible is quite disturbing. Courts and legislatures are complex entities with a lot of moving parts, so they can’t always be aware of how the application of one law will affect the application of another, seemingly unrelated, law. But maybe a little more time should be spent considering the possible consequences of their actions.

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