To the extent that that the strict liability rule absolves the manufacturer of liability where he may expect the purchaser to provide safety devices, it should not be applied. Where a manufacturer places into the channels of trade a finished product which can be put to use and which should be provided with safety devices because without such it creates an unreasonable risk of harm, and where such safety devices can feasibly be installed by the manufacturer, the fact that he expects that someone else will install such devices should not immunize him. The public interest in assuring that safety devices are installed demands more from the manufacturer than to permit him to leave such a critical phase of his manufacturing process to the haphazard conduct of the ultimate purchaser. The only way to be certain that such devices will be installed on all machines, which clearly the public interest requires, is to place the duty on the manufacturer where it is feasible for him to do so.
Plaintiff minor worker was injured while operating a power punch press for his employer when his right hand was crushed by the ram of the machine, resulting in the loss of fingers and deformity of his hand. He and plaintiff father filed an action for negligence, strict liability in tort, and breach of warranty of fitness of purpose against defendant manufacturer in a products liability case. The trial court dismissed the action and the superior court affirmed. The Court reasoned that since is was the custom of the trade that purchasers, rather than manufacturers, provide safety devices on punch presses like the one in question, defendant "had no reason to believe that the press would be put to use without some additions, i.e., the installation by the employer of protective devices suitable to whatever manufacturing process the press was to be devoted." On appeal, the court reversed and ordered a new trial, holding that the evidence was sufficient to withstand a motion for dismissal on the theory of either negligence or strict liability.
Did the trial court err in dismissing the strict liability claim at the close of plaintiffs' case?
On the strict liability issue, the court determined that where there was an unreasonable risk of harm to the user of a machine that had no protective safety device, a jury could have inferred that the machine was defective in design unless it found that the manufacturer's addition of a safety device would have rendered the machine unusable for its intended purposes. Where there is an unreasonable risk of harm to the user of a machine which has no protective safety device, as here, the jury may infer that the machine was defective in design unless it finds that the incorporation by the manufacturer of a safety device would render the machine unusable for its intended purposes. As we have said, the jury could infer from plaintiffs' evidence that it was feasible for defendant to install the push-button device.