FairWarining Reports

Power Tool Makers Accused in Lawsuit of Thwarting Adoption of Finger-Saving Device

Leading power tool manufacturers have conspired for years to thwart adoption of a safety device that could prevent thousands of finger amputations and other disfiguring injuries in table saw accidents, according to a federal antitrust lawsuit filed by the developer of the safety technology.

Using a hot dog as a proxy for a finger, SawStop produced this video to show how its safety technology can stop a spinning blade so fast that it causes only a minor nick.

The complaint by SawStop LLC, of Tualatin, Ore., names top power tool companies, including Bosch, Black & Decker, Makita, and Ryobi Technologies. It contends they orchestrated a secret boycott of SawStop’s finger-saving technology, fearing that if it gained traction, they would face increased liability for injuries from standard table saws.

As reported by FairWarning, more than 67,000 U.S. workers and do-it-your-selfers suffer blade contact injuries annually, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates. That includes more than 33,000 injuries treated in emergency rooms, among them 4,000 amputations. The SawStop system instantly stops a whirring blade on contact with skin, typically resulting in a minor nick instead of a life-changing injury.

The suit, filed in federal district court in Alexandria, Va., says the big manufacturers joined forces to spurn the technology when it was offered to them, and manipulated industry guidelines to keep safety systems, such as the one developed by SawStop, from becoming the industry standard. As a result, the suit contends, SawStop should be paid at least $10 million in lost revenue along with treble damages.

The 40-page complaint was filed on Feb. 20, and the 22 defendants—including saw manufacturers, their subsidiaries and affiliates—have yet to file answers.

In a statement to FairWarning, Cheryl Kilborn, director of media relations for Robert Bosch LLC, noted that “the use and adoption’’ of the SawStop technology “has long been debated in the industry.”

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But Kilborn said Bosch “has acted in a lawful and responsible manner, we deny the claims in the lawsuit, and we will vigorously defend our position in court.” A Makita spokesman declined comment, and Black & Decker and Ryobi did not return calls.

Though not named as defendants, the Power Tool Institute, an industry trade group, and Underwriters Laboratories, a safety consulting firm that oversees the content of voluntary table saw standards, were described in the lawsuit as co-conspirators. Representatives of both groups declined comment.

Industry officials have said in the past that their saws are reasonably safe. They have claimed that the cost of flesh detection technology and paying royalties to SawStop would make some popular lines of saws unaffordable.

“Bosch has always been committed to ensuring the safety of its products. The use and adoption of this particular technology [SawStop] has long been debated in the industry.”

    –Cheryl Kilborn, spokesperson for Robert Bosch LLC

The suit says the conspiracy began in 2001 or 2002, but was not revealed until February, 2010, through testimony of a retired Ryobi official at a trial in Boston. The case involved a worker named Carlos Osorio, who had sued Ryobi after suffering severe hand injuries in a table saw accident, and won a $1.5 million judgment.

During the trial, David Peot, Ryobi’s former director of advanced technologies, testified that at meetings of the Power Tool Institute, officials had voiced concerns that the SawStop technology could expose them to greater legal liability. The fear was that “if another manufacturer were to develop a concept of improved table saw safety, then the manufacturers who don’t have that would certainly be at a disadvantage when it comes to product liability,” Peot said.

Because of potential statute of limitations issues, the Peot testimony could be pivotal in determining if the SawStop case survives defense dismissal motions. Under federal law, anti-trust claims must be brought within four years of alleged violations, but the time “can be extended if the defendants willfully concealed that conspiracy,” said Joseph P. Bauer, a professor and antitrust expert at the University of Notre Dame Law School. According to the lawsuit, the clock should start running at the time of Peot’s testimony—almost four years to the day from the filing of the case.

“Defendants engaged in a group boycott of Plaintiff’s safety products for table saws beginning around 2001 or 2002, by agreeing among themselves to collectively refuse Plaintiffs’ offers to license its…technology, and by fraudulently concealing that conspiracy.”

    –SawStop lawsuit against power tool manufacturers

The SawStop invention involves running a weak electrical current through the saw blade. When a person comes in contact with the blade, the body absorbs part of the signal. A sensor detects the change in current and activates a spring that jams an aluminum wedge between the teeth of the blade, which acts as a brake. It all happens in about three milliseconds—about 100 times faster than a person could react after touching a blade.

The system was invented by Stephen Gass, a lawyer with a PhD. in physics, while tinkering in the workshop behind his house in 1999. After several years of fruitless attempts to license the technology, Gass and his SawStop partners decided to go into the table saw business themselves. Since 2004, they have sold more than 50,000 of the safer saws, which are larger and more expensive than most models.

The company has compiled a list of more than 2,000 “finger saves,” in which a user came into contact with a spinning blade on a SawStop saw. In more than 95 percent of the cases, the lawsuit states, the result was a cut that required no more than a band-aid.

In response to SawStop, five of the larger companies—including Black & Decker, Bosch and Ryobi—formed a joint venture to develop their own injury reduction system. The joint venture ended in 2009, when members said they had developed a safety system superior to SawStop’s, though they have yet to include it in a single saw.

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Myron Levin - FairWarning

About the author

Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

4 comments to “Power Tool Makers Accused in Lawsuit of Thwarting Adoption of Finger-Saving Device”

  1. Tony D Viars

    Ught If I would of known about a devise like this in 2009 it would of saved me from a serious finger ingery that the power saw caught poped up out of the board and went and cut my index finger requireing stiches took out some bone spinters with it I lost some fealing in it and left a scare. About 2.5 inches long on my hand sometimes it goes numb I rely on my hands for a liveing

  2. Jason Burzynski

    I saw a SawStop demo in action earlier this week at the WSC Spring Safety Conference. Very impressive to see this in action. The hotdog that served as a proxy barely had a scratch on it after making contact with the blade! You would walk away with a Band-Aid rather than an amputation. Amazing!

    All of that being said, I was quickly deflated when I asked if the unit could be retro-fitted to an existing table saw. The answer was NO. You have to buy their saw to get the technology… and its not cheap. I know I know, either are amputations.

    Some others in the audience also shared their thoughts and greed on both the big table saw manufacturers and the inventor of this amazing technology seem to be what’s stopping this from appearing and stores while keeping it affordable. Hopefully there can be a compromise and we can see this incredible product implemented worldwide and begin reducing the amount of needless amputations.

    I’m curious to see if OSHA ever cites a company as willful for any table saw amputations since technology exists that could have prevented the injury. Their recent stance on hearing loss and saying that “feasible” abatement just meant the cost of engineering controls shouldn’t put you out of business worries me however!

  3. Joleen Chambers

    Could this kind of conspiracy be happening with the #1 expenditure of medical devices(as of 2008): joint replacements and other implanted medical devices? Sweden had a hip registry in 1979 when their failure rate was 16%: the US is just beginning a voluntary registry (AAJR) now – though in 1997 the hip revision rate was at 18%. In 2006 more than 1 million hip and knee replacements were performed in the U.S. Most adverse events are not reported to the FDA/CDRH. A chairman of Orthopedic Surgery at Stanford University stated “You get a better chance of getting a letter from your car manufacturer if your car is recalled than you do if your hip has been recalled.” In 2009 Registries in Sweden, UK, Canada and Australia have seen up to a 10% reduction in revision rates. A modest 2% decrease in the US revision rate would yield a savings of $65.2 million in 1 year. Profit margins from orthopedic implants can reach 35%, making it a popular investment for venture capital. Only 1% of FDA cleared devices (including implants) go through clinical testing (PMA), the remainder are grandfathered in through 510(k) “substantial equivalence’.

  4. Katie Urbani

    My feeling about this lawsuit concerning Sawstop Corp. is that “Why is it so difficult to do the right thing”. Why do we have to push so hard and fight so long to consider the people we are serving, and not consider them consumers and think first about our profits. We fought for car seat belts, warnings on cigarette labels, back up mirrors in cars. It is not like only one person has to be injured before we take away greed and think of the person involved in the injury, but thousands. What is wrong with us? You ask anyone who has had perminate damage done to his body, if they thought paying a higher price for the Saw would be worth it. It is very hard to fight big business, but as many citizens of the US are realizing, it is worth the fight. What matters is people, we have lost sight of this in our wonderful country. It is a sad thing. Let’s step up here and start going in the right direction.

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