Robo Claims: When Robots Injure Humans

Around the world, robots are increasingly being used to perform menial and complex labor tasks in the home and in the workplace. Robots are used in restaurant kitchens to make sushi and chop vegetables. They are also important earlier in food production, planting rice, and tending growing crops. Robots also work as receptionists and cleaners, serve drinks and help look after the elderly in care homes. Police forces use robots to check buildings to pinpoint the location of criminals. Hospitals program robots to distribute medication to patients, and even to perform surgery. Robots are employed as teachers’ assistants in early childhood education centers. There are robot baristas and barmen which can serve at parties or work in bars. Robots harvest crops, groom animals, package products, excavate minerals, and move merchandise. Robots even build other robots. Like any machine, however, robots aren’t perfect. It may sound like science fiction, but robots can and do injure and kill people. When they fail, there can be catastrophic results which lead to catastrophic claims.

Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C. represents Banner Welder, Inc., a manufacturer of custom built robotics systems for complex production systems within the automotive industry around the world. Banner Welding Systems’ 62,000 square foot production plant in Germantown, Wisc., has over 50 robots on their floor being integrated into complex production systems. Co-president Bradley Mark says he has been made aware of injuries caused by robots on the production floor of automobile manufacturers.

“Banner Welder places great emphasis on robot safety because we understand the power and capabilities of these machines,” says Mark. “Even after we integrate the latest in design safety engineering, including lockout/tagout, light curtains, risk assessments, and safety training, injuries can occur.”

Mark knows of instances in which humans have been injured while in the robotic cells by the unexpected startup of energized robots.

“Most of the accidents occur in the troubleshooting phase when you’re trying to fix a malfunctioning machine, or during the programming of the robotic cell,” he adds.

For this reason, even after Banner Welder has implemented extensive design safety engineering measures, many automotive customers require a third-party safety evaluation as they are ultimately responsible for the safe operation on their production floor.

A competitor of Banner Welder built an automotive assembly robot recently which injured an employee who was in the robot cell to do maintenance. There were apparent lapses in the cell safety design and insufficient “lockout/tagout” (LOTO) procedures. A number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced during robotic surgical procedures. Surgical failures include instances of broken instruments falling into patients’ bodies, electrical sparks causing tissue burns, and system errors making surgery take longer than planned. A recent MIT study into the safety of surgical robots has linked the commercial use of robots to at least 144 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries over a 14-year period in the U.S. The study, performed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, documented 8,061 device malfunctions out of a total of more than 1.7 million robotic procedures carried out between January 2000 and December 2013.

It stands to reason that because the use of robotic systems is increasing “exponentially”, the number of injury-causing accidents will be increasing every year. Robotic surgery allows surgeons to use smaller instruments, letting them make smaller and more nimble cuts. Patients recover faster, with less risk of infection and the promise of smaller scars. It creates the opportunity for remote surgery, meaning that doctors do not always need to be in the same room – or in the same state – as their patients, allowing specialists who are in demand to treat more people.

Claims handlers will need to be prepared for claims involving robot defendants. Last year, a $30 million product liability suit filed in San Jose, Calif. against Intuitive Surgical, Inc. by a woman who claimed that the company’s “Da Vinci” robotic surgical system caused her severe internal injuries during a botched hysterectomy resulted in a confidential settlement during the third day of jury deliberations.

Of course, the responsibility for the manufacture, sale, and use of safe robots will fall on the manufacturers, programmers, maintenance professionals and the operators of the robots themselves. This will, necessarily, require the involvement of experts in the field of robotics claims. These claims will tend to be product liability claims in which injured plaintiffs and subrogated insurers will need to prove a defect in design, manufacture, or marketing of the robot. A robotic workcell (i.e., a complete system that includes the robot, controller, and other peripherals such as a part positioner and safety environment) may be lacking safety light curtains (electronic devices to ensure that nothing gets close enough to the robot to be harmed during the robot’s cycle), safety mats (pressure sensitive mats to guard an area from a human’s presence), interlocking doors (closed during robot operation), or other Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) safety precautions.

Most claims professionals are familiar with LOTO procedures normally required in and associated with the guarding against injuries from energized equipment. However, there is a debate within the industry with regard to the use of LOTO precautions with robot cells and similar industrial processes. There are a lot of tasks where you need to power up the robot in order to set up, program and troubleshoot a robot cell. In some cases, extra vigilance is the only solution. Experts tell us that a large percentage of fatalities and serious injuries take place during breakdown or non-scheduled, non-routine maintenance tasks where something stops working and it is important to get the robot back up and working. Zero risk may be unachievable. Tell an auto mechanic to turn off the car engine when he looks under the hood so that he doesn’t get his fingers caught in moving parts, and he won’t be able to do his job. Most maintenance and troubleshooting of robotic cells require the power being on.

As a result of the necessary risk which must be confronted during maintenance, programming, and non-scheduled stops of production, extensive training is required to ensure that all personnel are intimately familiar with the hazards unique to this state of the equipment. Lack of training or inadequate risk assessment for maintenance tasks could become a potential cause of action or claim. For subrogation professionals, this means increased potential for recovery. Interestingly, serious injuries and death usually involve the mechanics and electricians – the skilled workers and others that do work outside of normal production. This means that the employer of the injured or deceased employee is often not the owner or operator of the robot, providing fertile potential for subrogation.