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A defendant's liability will not arise from a breach of duty alone. Instead, a plaintiff must show, in addition, that the failure to warn was a substantial cause of the events which produced the injury. And, where the injured party was fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation or common sense, or participated in the removal of the safety device whose purpose is obvious, lack of a warning about that danger may well obviate the failure to warn as a legal cause of an injury resulting from that danger.
Plaintiff Alphonso Burke’s fingers were severed when, as he was holding onto the blade of a metal cutting machine, cleaning the ramp behind it, a supervisor started up the machine. Plaintiff brought suit asserting various New York State tort claims against the machine's manufacturer, defendant-appellee Spartanics Ltd. ("Spartanics"), which in turn impleaded Burke's employer, Metal Etching Company ("Metal Etching"), as a third-party defendant. Before trial, plaintiff moved in limine to exclude any evidence of Burke's use of marijuana and cocaine. At oral argument on this motion, defendant pointed out that plaintiff's psychiatric expert on damages referred in his report to increased drug use in the aftermath of the accident. Plaintiff, however, stated that he did not intend to pursue a damages theory grounded in such post-accident drug use. Based on this stipulation, the court granted the motion to preclude. Nevertheless, at trial, plaintiff's expert did testify to Burke's increasing post-accident drug use. He gave this testimony in response to an innocuous cross-examination question concerning the number of sessions the expert psychiatrist had conducted with plaintiff. Defense counsel immediately followed up with several more questions concerning alcohol and drug use. The trial judge instructed the jury, both after the testimony and before deliberations, that it could consider the testimony on alcohol and drug use only with respect to its evaluation of damages. Moreover, the judge instructed the jury that if the plaintiff knew of the dangers associated with the metal cutting machine, then the defendant would have no duty to warn plaintiff of the dangers associated with the machine. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. Plaintiff challenged the decision, arguing that the district court should not have permitted testimony concerning his past drug use.
Under the circumstances, did the district court err in ruling in favor of the defendants?
The court affirmed; plaintiff opened the door for the drug use evidence by his witnesses' testimony of drug usage after the accident despite a prior stipulation, and the court's instructions on the duty to warn, while imperfect, only constituted harmless error, because it was obvious from the verdict that plaintiff would have ignored a warning sign even if one had been posted, and failure to warn was not part of the causation of the accident.