Jones (Plaintiff) was injured while operating a printing press manufactured by Ryobi, Ltd. (Defendant) and distributed by A.B. Dick (Defendant) that was modified by her employer to remove a safety apparatus.
When a third party modifies a product, rendering it unsafe, the manufacturer is not liable, even if the modification is foreseeable.
Plaintiff worked for Business Cards Tomorrow (BCT) as a printing press operator. Blank sheets of paper were passed through the moving parts in the press and images were imprinted. Part of Plaintiff’s duties included ensuring that the wheels that moved the printed paper out of the press did not streak the printed images. The press Plaintiff operated had been purchased by BCT from Ryobi, Ltd. and had come with a plastic guard that protected the moving parts of the press and a switch that would turn off the press whenever the guard was opened. BCT modified the press to remove the guard and disable the switch in order to save time. This modification was common in the printing industry. While Plaintiff was operating this modified press, she was startled while trying to adjust the wheels and her hand was crushed in the press. Plaintiff sued Ryobi, Ltd., the manufacturer, as well as A.B. Dick the distributor, alleging the press was defectively designed and that strict product liability was warranted. The trial court granted Defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and Plaintiff appealed.
When a third party modifies a product and renders it unsafe, is the manufacturer liable?
(Fagg, J.) No. When a third party modifies a product, rendering it unsafe, the manufacturer is not liable, even if the modification is foreseeable. In order to recover from Defendants on her strict liability theory, Plaintiff would have to prove that her injury was a direct result of a design defect present when the printing press was sold to BCT. The press was modified by a third party unrelated to either defendant, so they cannot be liable. Plaintiff failed to show that the press was dangerous when used in the condition in which it was sold, so her strict liability claim fails. Affirmed.
(Heaney, J.) The district court erred in granting Defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law. Enough conflicting evidence was presented that the case should have gone to the jury. The evidence does not establish that the printing press was safe in the condition in which it was sold. Witnesses testified that the safety shut off switch was not fail-safe. Additionally, the fact that so many companies removed the safety guards shows that the printing press did not operate efficiently according to industry standards with them on.
Many courts have adopted the opposite approach and do hold manufacturers liable for modified products when the product is foreseeable and the manufacturers know that it is being modified. Under this approach, the manufacturer has a duty to consider such foreseeable modifications when designing the product. Under either approach, the dissent was probably correct in finding that there was enough evidence on the safety of the printing press in its original condition to have sent the case to the jury.