Firefighter Killed by Caterpillar Rollover – Dangerous Design of Operator Compartment

Synopsis

On Oct. 8, 2007, decedent Matthew, 30, a Heavy Fire Equipment Operator for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) was battling the Palo Colorado fire in Monterey County with a bulldozer. Matthew's bulldozer was a Caterpillar D6N XL Track Type Tractor equipped with a Rollover Protection Structure and a forestry arrangement, which included a brush screen. The bulldozer's only operator restraint device was a two-point lap belt. As Matthew was cutting a bench into the side of the ridge below a stuck tractor that he was attempting to free, the ground gave way beneath his unit. The nearly 20-ton bulldozer slipped off the side of the hill and did at least two full rolls down the hill, traveling approximately 150 feet, before it came to rest at the bottom of the hill in a ravine. During the accident, one of the tempered glass windows shattered and Matthew struck his head against a fixed steel mounting bracket that pointed in towards his operator compartment. Matthew subsequently died. The fixed steel mounting bracket was part of the brush screen and was affixed to the dozer's ROPS post, all of which were outside of the glass window that shattered. The impact of Matthew's head with the fixed steel mounting bracket resulted in a skull penetration with associated injuries which were determined to be the cause of death.

Plaintiff Allegations

Matthew's wife, Diana, and their children, Trysten and Elsie, filed suit against Caterpillar Inc. as well as against Thompson Machinery Commerce and Peterson Tractor Co. They claimed that the bulldozer was defectively and negligently designed, resulting in Matthew's wrongful death. The Rollover Protection Structure on Matthew's bulldozer was designed and manufactured by Caterpillar.

Defendant Allegations

Caterpillar contended this was not a survivable rollover event and that no other manufacturer equips their dozers with multipoint restraints. They further argued that the use of a track-type tractor on the steep side of the ridge posed an unforeseeable misuse of the product and the true cause of the incident was negligence on the part of Matthew and Cal Fire.

Result

The jury compensated the plaintiffs $6,702,334 in total damages, including $4,494,000 in economic damages and $2,208,334 in non-economic damages. The jury determined that Caterpillar was 67% liable for Matthew's wrongful death. It also assigned 27% comparative fault to Matthew and 6% comparative fault to his employer, Cal Fire.