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A recent lawsuit filed by the widower of a Michigan manufacturing plant worker is seeking to hold the makers and installers of robotic manufacturing equipment liable for the death. Wanda Holbrook was inspecting a section of machinery that was not working properly, when another malfunctioning robotic machine struck her in the head and killed her.
The lawsuit alleges that the robot that killed her should not have been able to access the area where she was located, and the very fact that the incident occurred is proof of a design defect and the failure of the various safety systems.
Michigan's Manufacturer Protection
Likely as a result of the state of Michigan's history as a leader in automotive manufacturing, manufacturers have some legal protections in the state that won't be found elsewhere. Unless it can be proven that the death was a result of an intentional act, an employer generally will not be liable for the negligent death of an employee.
However, as the Holbrook case illustrates, under Michigan law, the 3rd party manufacturers and installers of the machinery can be held liable for injuries caused by their machinery under normal product liability theories. In Holbrook's case, the employer is not being sued, but rather, only the makers and installers of the robotic manufacturing equipment.
Details of the Case
The death happened nearly two years ago in July 2015. Wanda Holbrook was inspecting robotic machinery that was used to make automotive trailer hitches. As she inspected the receiving end of a machine that already had a trailer hitch in place, a robot designed to put a trailer hitch into place attempted to do what it was designed to do, while Wanda's head was in its way.
Despite suffering a head trauma that necessitated a closed casket funeral, her employer was only fined $7,000 as a result of the incident. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages for the wrongful death.