Robot kills fellow worker

In what could be a first, a robot is being sued for killing a human colleague.

In July 2015, Wanda Holbrook, “a maintenance technician performing routine duties on an assembly line” at an auto-parts maker in Ionia, Michigan, called Ventra Ionia Main, “was ‘trapped by robotic machinery’ and crushed to death”.

On March 7, her husband, William Holbrook, filed a wrongful death complaint in Michigan federal court, naming five North American robotics companies involved in engineering and integrating the machines and parts used at the plant. These included Prodomax, Flex-N-Gate, FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric.

Holbrook’s job involved keeping robots in working order. She routinely inspected and adjusted processes on the assembly line at Ventra, which makes bumpers.

Holbrook was performing her regular duties when a machine acted very irregularly, according to the lawsuit reported in Courthouse News.

Holbrook was in the plant’s six-cell “100 section” when a robot unexpectedly activated, taking her by surprise. The cells are separated by safety doors and the robot should not have been able to move. But it somehow reached Holbrook, and was intent on loading a trailer-hitch assembly part right where she stood over a similar part in another cell.

The machine loaded the hardware onto Holbrook’s head. She was unable to escape, and her skull was crushed. Co-workers who eventually noticed that something seemed amiss found Holbrook dead.

William Holbrook seeks an unspecified amount of damages, arguing that before her gruesome death, his wife “suffered tremendous fright, shock and conscious pain and suffering”.

He also names three of the defendants — FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric — in two additional claims of product liability and breach of implied warranty.

The case argues that the robots, tools, controllers, and associated parts were not properly designed, manufactured or tested, and not fit for use.

“The robot from section 130 should have never entered section 140, and should have never attempted to load a hitch assembly within a fixture that was already loaded with a hitch assembly. A failure of one or more of defendants’ safety systems or devices had taken place, causing Wanda’s death,” the lawsuit alleges.