City jury ponders verdict in fatality Design of lift that killed safety agent is called faulty.

October 18, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

The four-ton motorized lift Ronald Tognocchi rode to his death, the UNO-33E, was dangerous from the start, says a lawyer representing Tognocchi's family in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Members of the victim's family "don't want sympathy," the lawyer, Daniel M. Clements, told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury in closing arguments yesterday. "They want a verdict that says you don't build machines like this and get away with it."

But Robert Powell, attorney for the manufacturer, argued that Tognocchi, 45, who was investigating a previous accident on the same lift when he died, voluntarily assumed a risk when he set out to "re-create" the accident.

"He knew there was a danger involved," Powell said. "He encountered that danger and he did it voluntarily."

The jury of eight men and four women was to resume deliberations today after deliberating for 3 1/2 hours yesterday.

In the 2 1/2 -week trial, the jury saw Tognocchi's death again and again -- captured in a gripping videotape taken June 26, 1989. The camera was set up that day as Tognocchi, assistant safety manager at Cockeysville defense contractor AAI Corp., probed an earlier lift accident.

Virginia Tognocchi and her two children, Scott, 20, and Dawn, 10, slipped out of the courtroom whenever the video was shown.

The suit alleges negligence by Missouri-based Snorkel-Economy Division of Figgie International Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of industrial work platforms, and Siems Rental & Sales Co., of Baltimore, which leased the $30,000 lift to AAI.

AAI worker Roy Flaharty was seriously injured June 20, 1989, after being thrown from the basket of the UNO-33E. Snorkel-Economy and Siems immediately sent representatives to Cockeysville, but the representatives found nothing wrong with the lift, according to testimony.

On June 26, with a lawyer from AAI watching and the camera rolling, Tognocchi climbed onto the UNO-33E. He maneuvered the vehicle out of a building and skidded to a stop. Tognocchi then put the vehicle into "reverse configuration" -- with the UNO-33E's braking wheels in front and the boom carrying him in the rear.

"I don't know why he's doing that," someone says in a transcript of the video. "That's OK," someone else says, "film it anyway."

Tognocchi explains, "I'm going to take it down the other way. I think we'll get some more impact . . . I think this is the way it was."

The tape showed the lift as it headed down the incline and then

stopped abruptly. The rear of the vehicle jumped as Tognocchi's body violently pitched forward into a metal bar. The impact crushed his breastbone and ribs, and put a 1 1/2 -inch hole in his heart.

Clements told the jury recent tests demonstrated the UNO-33E's tendency to pitch into the air when stopped on slight inclines in the reverse configuration. But, he said, it was not until after the ZTC fatal accident that Snorkel-Economy spent $30,000 to $50,000 for safety tests of the vehicle. "What Mr. Tognocchi was doing was his job because neither of the defendants did their jobs," Clements said.

In August 1989, Snorkel-Economy issued a "product safety bulletin," warning users of the danger of operating the UNO-33E in reverse configuration.

Powell told the jury Flaharty's accident was the first involving the UNO-33E. There are more than 1,000 of the vehicles in use nationwide. "I stand by my product proudly," he said.

Tognocchi "went beyond what is reasonable" in his probe of the earlier accident, Powell said. The assistant safety manager knew the UNO-33E would jump when he slammed on the brakes, he said.

"It was his intent to find out how he could make this vehicle buck up," Powell told the jury. "Unfortunately, he did. He assumed the risk."

Charles Dann, representing Siems, said his client did not know of the dangers associated with the UNO-33E. "They are not mechanics or engineers," he said. "They are not accident reconstructionists. They don't do design analysis."

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