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A manufacturer may have a duty to warn of dangers associated with the use of its product even after it is sold. Such a duty will generally arise where a defect or danger is revealed by user operation and brought to the attention of the manufacturer; the existence and scope of such a duty are generally fact-specific.
Plaintiff Luis Liriano, was a meat-cutter working for defendant Super Associated grocery store. Plaintiff's arm was amputated by a meat grinder produced by defendant manufacturer, Hobart Corporation. Defendant supermarket had removed a safety guard placed on the product by defendant manufacturer. There were no warnings on the meat grinder to indicate that it was dangerous to operate it without the safety feature. Plaintiff sued defendant manufacturer under theories of negligence and strict products liability for, inter alia, defective product design and failure to warn. He also impleaded defendant grocery store as a third-party defendant, seeking indemnification and/or contribution. The federal district court dismissed all of plaintiff's claims except that for failure to warn. Following jury trial, the jury concluded that the manufacturer’s failure to warn was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries and apportioned liability 5% to defendant manufacturer and 95% to defendant supermarket. On partial retrial, limited to the extent of plaintiff’s responsibility, the jury assigned him 33 1/3% of the responsibility. On appeal, defendants argued, inter alia, that the question of whether defendant manufacturer had a duty to warn plaintiff should have been decided in their favor by the court, as a matter of law.
Can manufacturer liability exist under a failure to warn theory in cases in which the substantial modification defense would preclude liability under a design defect theory?
On remand to the Court of Appeals of New York, it was held that manufacturer liability for failure to warn may exist even in cases where the substantial modification defense would preclude liability on a design defect theory. According to the Court, although it was virtually impossible to design a product to forestall all future risk-enhancing modifications that could occur after the sale, it was neither infeasible nor onerous, in some cases, to warn of the dangers of foreseeable modifications that pose the risk of injury. Compared to purchasers and users of a product, a manufacturer was best placed to learn about post-sale defects or dangers discovered in use. A manufacturer's superior position to garner information and its corresponding duty to warn was no less with respect to the ability to learn of modifications made to or misuse of a product. However, where reasonable minds may disagree as to the extent of plaintiff's knowledge of the hazard, the question was one for the jury. The question of whether defendant manufacturer's liability was barred as a matter of law on the facts of the present case, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, was to be determined by the federal court of appeals.