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Liriano v. Hobart Corp

    Brief Fact Summary. The Court of Appeals of New York granted a judgment and damages for plaintiff in a suit for failure of the duty to warn. Defendant and Third-party Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The duty to warn is not necessarily obviated merely because a danger is clear.

    Facts. Plaintiff’s hand was caught in a meat grinder while he was working. He was severely injured. He sued the manufacturer then brought a third-party action against plaintiff’s employer. At the time of sale, the machine came equipped with a safety guard, but the guard was removed while in possession of Plaintiff’s employer. The apparatus carried no safety warning indicating that it should be operated only with the safety guard attached. The issue that went before the jury was the failure to warn claim. The jury found for Plaintiff, and liability was apportioned among all three parties.

    Issue. Does a reasonable manufacturer have a duty to warn even when the danger at issue is an obvious one?

    Held. The court affirmed the judgment, concluding that failure-to-warn liability was valid and applied as a matter of law to the facts of the present case.

    Discussion. The Restatement (Third) of Torts deals directly with product liability, listing three types of claim available to a putative plaintiff: (1) manufacturing defect; (2) design defect; or a (3) defect by reason of inadequate warnings or instructions. Liriano concerns the third, with the majority opinion addressing the issue of “obviousness as a matter of law” providing a shield to potential defendants whose products could cause injury.
    The majority opinion in Liriano addresses both issues of responsibility and causation, and, very importantly, which areas are reserved for the court and which are better suited to a jury. The court notes that the evolution of the law’s position with regard to standards of conduct has been shifting from court-imposed standards towards “enlarging the sphere of the jury.” As the majority opinion states: “[j]udges should be very wary of taking the issue of liability away from juries, even in situations where the relevant dangers might seem obvious, and especially when the cases in question turn on particularized facts.”
    In line with a clearly fact-based approach to determining the standard of care due, and thus what would constitute negligence, the Liriano court also applied a totality of circumstances analysis, observing “[t]he Plaintiff was only seventeen years old at the time of his injury and had only recently immigrated to the United States. He had been on the job for only one week. He had never been given instructions about how to use the meat grinder.” The court reasoned that it would not have been such a stretch for the defendant to have anticipated such or similar circumstances and guarded against injury through the nominal precaution of providing a warning label.
    Finally, with regard to causation, the court explained: “[w]hen a defendant’s negligent act is deemed wrongful precisely because it has a strong propensity to cause the type of injury that ensued, that very causal tendency is evidence enough to establish a prima facie case of cause-in-fact.” Thus, the court reasoned, “[e]ven if [the state court] would consider the danger of meat grinders to be obvious as a matter of law, that obviousness did not substitute for the warning.”


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