The frightening prospect of a future in which robots have turned against their human masters is the central theme of many science fiction novels. But a recent Michigan case of a woman who was killed by a robot at work shows the real life dangers of increasing automation and the need to ensure protection for workers.
In 2015, Wanda Holbrook, a technician at an Ionia, Michigan, trailer-hitch manufacturing plant, was performing maintenance duties on some equipment when a plant robot malfunctioned. The robot entered the area of the plant where Wanda was working and crushed her skull as it attempted to put a hitch assembly in a machine that was already loaded with a hitch assembly. Wanda was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.
Wanda’s husband William Holbrooke has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against both the robot’s manufacturers as well as the companies responsible for installing the robot and related safety devices at the plant, claiming negligence in both the design and manufacture.
The lawsuit is important because it will help determine the level of protection in place to ensure the safety of workers in an era of increasing use of powerful – and potentially dangerous — technology.
Workers’ compensation only offers very limited benefits to the dependent spouse or children of a worker in the case of his accidental death. Under the laws of Michigan and many other states, a person injured at work can only sue his employer for damages beyond workers’ compensation if he can prove the employer acted intentionally to injure him. There is also the option of a third-party suit any time a worker is injured on the job by someone – or something – other than a fellow employee. Again, the worker may be able to recover damages over and above worker’s compensation.
While technology has made our lives better in many ways, it has its drawbacks. If a person rather than a robot had been assigned to load machines with hitch assemblies at the plant where Wanda Holbrook worked, she would not have died in the terrifying and painful manner that she did. As we envision a future where robots are doing everything from serving food at restaurants to performing surgery at hospitals, we must ensure that we are using technology to benefit people, not some corporation’s bottom line.
It’s also essential that our courts make it clear to these manufacturers and installers that the safety of employees who have to work with these robots is paramount.
If you have been injured at work, and you believe negligence by an equipment manufacturer or some other third party is to blame, the Sommers Schwartz Personal Injury group may be able to help. Please contact us today to discuss your case.