Lawsuit filed after woman killed by robotic equipment

Wanda Holbrook died in industrial accident in Ionia in July 2015

An undated courtesy photo of Wanda Holbrook.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The widower of a woman killed in a 2015 industrial accident is suing the makers of the robotic manufacturing equipment that crushed her head.

Bill Holbrook’s lawsuit was filed in federal court in Grand Rapids on March 7. It claims that on July 7, 2015, Wanda Holbrook was performing routine maintenance in the welding department at Ventra Ionia Main — which she had done for years — when something went terribly wrong.

Ventra Ionia Main
First responders on the scene of a fatal industrial accident at Ventra Ionia Main. (July 7, 2015)

“She was standing in an area in front of where the part was going to be placed. So the part was being placed, her head was between those two spots and so it planted the part with her head in the middle,” Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, P.C. attorney Matthew Wikander said.

He said it’s unclear precisely where Holbrook was standing, but that the robot was already loaded with a hitch assembly and wasn’t supposed to load another part until the first one had been removed. Essentially, he explained, the robot double-loaded.

“Head was pressed into a part, so it had been pressed together and she was on her knees still in that position,” Wikander said.

The suit alleges Holbrook suffered “tremendous fright, shock and conscious pain.” Wikander said the companies who developed and manufactured the robot should be held responsible for that.

He noted that no one witnessed the death.

Five companies are named as defendants in the suit:

  • Prodomax Automation LTD., based in Canada;
  • Flex-N-Gate LLC, based in Delaware;
  • FANUC America Corporation based in Delaware;
  • Nachi Robotic Systems Inc. based in Delaware;
  • Lincoln Electric Company based in Ohio.

The suit accuses FANUC, Nachi and Lincoln Electric of defect/negligent design and manufacturing defect under product liability laws.

“At all times, defendant FANUC, Nachi and Lincoln Electric owed a duty to Wanda and to the public to properly design, manufacture and test their products, including their robots, robot controllers, robot tooling, part fixtures, welding process equipment and/or safety devices involved in this case,” the suit states.

Those three companies are also accused of a breach of implied warrant under product liability law and failure to warn all potential users of the dangers associated with the use of their products. In total, the suit alleges nine counts of failure under product liability law.

“It all goes back to how this system was set up whether or not certain mechanical parts of the system failed,” Wikander said.

Wanda Holbrook was a wife, mother of three and grandmother.

“Gentleness, sincerity,” Bill Holbrook described his wife’s traits to 24 Hour News 8 the week after her death. “If she were to sit down and talk to you, you would that you were the only person that she knew and you’re the most importance person in her life at that time.”

Holbrook, who now lives out of state, issued a statement on the suit to 24 Hour News 8 via Facebook on Wednesday night:

“Wanda did nothing wrong. Wanda was a very experienced professional and she never saw it coming. This was not her fault. I want to make sure nothing like this happens to another family. We would feel terrible if we didn’t do anything and then another family had to go through something similar to this,” he wrote.

In 2016, the state fined Ventra $7,000 for the death, but federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) records show that fine was dismissed. It’s common for fines like that to be reduced, even in the case of a death, Target 8 uncovered in 2013.

Wikander said Ventra and the defendants provided some information on the death during that citation. He added that Ventra denied access to records and the site to investigators for the Holbrook family following her death, but because of the suit, they will now be able to gain access to the facility and complete their investigation.

As of Wednesday, none of the defendants had responded to the suit, which is asking for damages of more than $75,000.