Jury finds manufacturer liable in worker's death AAI safety officer died testing machine

October 19, 1991|By Brian Sullam

There never was any doubt about how Ronald Tognocchi died on June 26, 1989, because the accident that took his life was recorded on videotape. The question had been, who was responsible?

Mr. Tognocchi's family contended that the mobile work platform he was operating at the Cockeysville plant of the AAI Corp. was defective and that its manufacturer -- the Snorkel-Economy Division of Figgie International Inc., a Fortune 500 conglomerate -- was responsible for the accident.

Attorneys for Figgie contended that Mr. Tognocchi, an assistant safety officer for AAI, was responsible because he knowingly caused the platform to malfunction in an effort to determine how an earlier accident on the platform had happened. He had set up a video camera to record his findings.

Yesterday, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury gave its answer: Figgie was responsible and should pay damages of $2.8 million to Mr. Tognocchi's family and his estate.

"We are very satisfied with the verdict," said Daniel M. Clements, one of the Tognocchi family's attorneys. He said Mr. Tognocchi's widow, Virginia Tognocchi, "believes the most important message was that this accident was not her husband's fault. He was a good man, a competent safety officer."

Mrs. Tognocchi declined to comment after the verdict.

Robert Powell, an attorney for Figgie, said the verdict probably would be appealed but otherwise declined to comment.

It took the jury of eight men and four women more than 4 1/2 hours to reach its verdict, after a 2 1/2 -week trial that required more than 27 witnesses.

The video, which was played for the jury three times, showed Mr. Tognocchi operating the 4-ton motorized lift down a ramp, which had a slight incline. He was riding in the bucket of the machine and using the bucket's controls to maneuver.

Mr. Tognocchi was trying to re-create an accident that had occurred six days earlier. In that accident, a worker named Roy Flaharty had been severely injured.

A representative from Snorkel-Economy had come to the plant three days after the accident and tested the machine. He said the machine was working properly.

Mr. Tognocchi, AAI's safety officer, was not happy with the finding. He wanted to test the machine himself. Mr. Tognocchi set up a video camera so he could have a record of his test.

During the first descent, nothing happened until he put on the brakes. The machine skidded slightly before it came to a complete stop.

He backed up and then rotated the entire platform around so it was in reverse configuration -- the front of the machine was to the rear. Mr. Tognocchi then drove the machine into the warehouse and disappeared for several seconds.

He re-emerged at the top of the incline, and he is heard saying on the videotape: "I am going to take it down the other way. I think we will have more impact. . . . I think this was the way it was."

Mr. Tognocchi started down the incline. The machine lurched to a stop, pitched forward with the rear wheels -- actually the front wheels -- coming off the ground.

The sudden stop tossed Mr. Tognocchi high into the air. He fell heavily onto the metal bar that protected the controls, hitting his chest. He collapsed in a heap on the floor of the bucket, with his head resting on

his chest.

The video shows Mr. Tognocchi, apparently in a great deal of agony, moving his arms very slowly. Within seconds he stopped moving.

According to testimony from the state medical examiner, when Mr. Tognocchi fell on the bar, he broke his sternum and several ribs. One of the broken bones punctured the left ventricle of his heart. He died about 40 seconds later, the medical examiner said.

Figgie's attorneys argued that Mr. Tognocchi was responsible for his death because he used the machine in a way that would cause an accident.

"Mr. Tognocchi didn't intend to injure or kill himself," said Mr. Powell, Figgie's attorney, in his closing argument. "He knows there is a danger . . . he knows there is a danger of the machine bucking up. He did it voluntarily."

Mr. Powell argued that Mr. Tognocchi was experimenting with the machine and that his client produced a machine that would not injure anyone so long as it was operated properly.

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