Hobart Corp. (Defendant) appealed a finding that it was partially responsible for failing to warn Liriano (Plaintiff) of the dangers of a meat grinder manufactured by Defendant but then substantially modified by a third party.
In cases where defective design liability would be precluded by the substantial modifications to the product made by a third party, the manufacturer may still be liable for failure to warn of the danger presented by that modification.
Plaintiff worked for a supermarket and used a meat grinder in the course of his employment. The supermarket had modified the meat grinder by removing the safety guard. The grinder did not have a written warning printed on it warning against using it without the safety guard. Plaintiff lost his right hand and forearm while using the meat grinder and sued Defendant, the manufacturer of the grinder, for negligence and strict products liability for defective design and failure to warn. The district court dismissed the defective design claim and on the failure to warn claim, the jury found Defendant five percent responsible and the supermarket 95 percent responsible for Plaintiff’s injury. Defendant appealed, arguing that the failure to warn claim should have been barred as a matter of law because the manufacturer should not be liable for failure to warn when the modifications of a third party made the product unsafe.
When a manufacturer would not be liable for defective design because a substantial modification by a third party made the product unsafe, can the manufacturer still be found liable for failing to warn of the danger caused by that modification?
(Ciparick, J.) Yes. In cases where defective design liability would be precluded by the substantial modifications to the product made by a third party, the manufacturer may still be liable for failure to warn of the danger presented by that modification. A manufacturer is liable for failing to warn against the foreseeable misuse of its product. In the same way, it may be liable for failing to warn against a foreseeable modification of its product. The jury decides whether the danger posed by the modification was open and obvious to the manufacturer based upon the facts of the case.
The plaintiff in this case was a 17-year old recent immigrant to the United States. The duty to warn expressed in this case does not apply to bulk suppliers. When a company supplies a product in bulk to a large enterprise where it will be used by many workers, no direct warnings are necessary.