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Skinner v. Square D Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Skinner constructed a tumbling machine that was controlled by a switch, which contained alligator clips. To operate the machine, there was a specific procedure one manually needed to perform by rotating the direction of the drums, disconnecting two of the alligator clips, and reversing them. Once the procedure was done properly, the machine would rotate or make a noise. One day, Skinner was working alone when he called out, causing his wife and two other women next door to be alarmed. The women found Skinner on the floor with an alligator clip and with current flowing in him. Subsequently, Skinner died. Skinner’s estate representatives brought suit against the company Skinner worked for, Defendant. Defendant motioned for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion Plaintiffs appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When circumstantial evidence fails to support a finding that the defendant’s conduct more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s harm, the evidence is insufficient to establish a but-for cause.

    Facts.

    Chester Skinnerconstructed a tumbling machine that is used to clean and finish metal parts. Square D Company, Defendant, controlled the power to the machine with a switch that was connected to the machine’s motor with wires that had “alligator clips” on the ends. To operate the machine, one needed to manually reverse the direction of the rotating drum, which Plaintiff or one of his coworkers would do by shutting off the switch, disconnecting two of the alligator clips from the motor, and reversing the clips.Once the machine was turned on and hooked properly, the machine would rotate or make noise. In February 1986, Skinner was working by himself when his wife and two other women in the room next door heard him call out. When the women came to Skinner, they saw him holding an alligator clip in each hand with live current flowing through him. At that point, Skinner was able to remove one clip and flip the switch to the off direction, which resulted in his death. Plaintiffs, representatives of Skinner’s estate brought suit against Defendant on the grounds that the switch was defective because it did not always clearly indicate whether it was on or off. Plaintiffs contend the defect was the cause of Skinner’s death. Further, Plaintiffs introduced evidence that Skinner was a cautious worker, and the accident took place when the machine was on but the wires were not hooked, causing the machine not refrain from moving or making any noise to indicate that it was on.Thus, Skinner did not believe the machine was turned on because the switch was defective. Defendant motioned for summary judgment on the grounds that even if the switch was defective, Plaintiffs did not meet their burden in establishing that the defect was the cause of Skinners death. Subsequently, the trial court granted Defendant’s motion, and Plaintiffs appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether evidence is insufficient to establish a but-for cause when circumstantial evidence fails to support a finding that the defendant’s conduct more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s harm.

    Held.

    Yes, evidence is insufficient to establish a but-for cause when circumstantial evidence fails to support a finding that the defendant’s conduct more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s harm.

    Dissent.

    The evidence properly and sufficiently supports Plaintiffs’ position that the machine was turned on, but connected. Because the evidence indicates that the machine was not operating before Skinner touched the live wires, a jury could reasonable find that the wires were disconnected and such reliance upon the defective switch caused Skinner to believe that the machine was not turned on before touching the wires.

    Discussion.

    When an injury occurs that is not witnessed, the plaintiff my offer circumstantial evidence to establish causation. When circumstantial evidence fails to support a finding that the defendant’s conduct more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s harm, the evidence is insufficient to establish a but-for cause.If another cause is just as likely to have caused the conduct to the plaintiff, then the plaintiff has not met his or her burden, but merely provided conjecture or speculation. In this case, Plaintiffs have not met their burden that Defendant caused Skinner’s death due to a defective switch. Had the machine been turned on and connected, it would have rotated of make a noise, making its status apparent to Skinner. This theory is a possibility of what could have happened, however, it is unsupported by factual evidence. Therefore, the lower court’s judgment is affirmed.


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