Michigan Court To Decide Who Should Be Held Liable When Robots Kill

The husband of a woman killed by robotic machinery at her factory job is suing for wrongful death. The federal lawsuit seeks $75,000 from the companies linked to the equipment. (Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, federal courts can hear cases between citizens of different states only when the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000. (28 U.S.C. § 1332(a).)) The case raises the strange but increasingly relevant question of who should be held liable when robots injure or kill human staff.

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The victim was killed in July 2015 at Ventra Iona Main, an auto parts factory where she worked. Ventra Iona performs stamping of bumpers as well as welding, and it was recently fined by the state for workplace violations preceding the victim’s death. For 12 years, the victim made a good living and supported her husband as a journeyman maintenance mechanic for Ventra. She was succeeding in a male-dominated industry and carved out a specialty of fixing robots when things went wrong.

Her job required her to perform maintenance on robots. On the afternoon of the incident, one robot took her by surprise by entering the area where she was working. She was in an area known as “100” cell when the robot’s arm swung in out of nowhere. Allegedly malfunctioning, it crushed her head into a fixture.

Her coworkers noticed that certain operations weren’t functioning as scheduled and realized something was wrong. They soon found the victim unresponsive; she died at the scene about 40 minutes after the incident. Her head injuries were so severe that there needed to be a closed casket at her funeral.

As defendants, the lawsuit lists Nanchi Robotic, Ohio-based Lincoln Electric, FANUC America, Delaware company Flex-N-Gate, and Canadian corporation Prodomax, alleging that they failed to properly test, monitor, manufacture, and design the robot technology. Fanuc, Nachi, and Lincoln are the companies that built the robot, while the other two are the companies responsible for installing and servicing the robot. Ventra Iona was not sued.

The suit alleges a failure of one or more defendants’ safety systems or devices. Allegedly, the robot never should have been in the area where it crushed the victim, and it never should have performed the actions it was performing. Her husband wants to know what went wrong and hold the liable parties accountable.

He seeks damages on claims of product liability, negligence, and breach of implied warranty. He argues the companies’ negligence caused his wife to suffer shock and conscious pain and suffering.

The victim is survived by her husband, three children, and several grandchildren. Her family and former coworkers filled the pews at her funeral. The husband said his wife “absolutely loved what she did.” His lawyer called the woman’s death “a catastrophic loss.”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, robots have been responsible for over 30 workplace deaths and injuries in the United States over the last three decades.

The personal injury attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent injured people throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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