A warning can do more than exhort its audience to be careful. It can also affect what activities the people warned choose to engage in. And where the function of a warning is to assist the reader in making choices, the value of the warning can lie as much in making known the existence of alternatives as in communicating the fact that a particular choice is dangerous. It follows that the duty to warn is not necessarily obviated merely because a danger is clear.
Plaintiff was severely injured on the job when his hand was caught in a meat grinder manufactured by defendant and owned by plaintiff's employer, third-party defendant. The meat grinder had been sold to third-party defendant with a safety guard, but the safety guard was removed. The machine bore no warning indicating that the grinder should be operated only with a safety guard. A decision granting a judgment and damages in favor of plaintiff for failure to warn was affirmed. Even if the state court would consider the danger of meat grinders to be obvious as a matter of law, that obviousness did not substitute for the warning that a jury could, and indeed did, find that defendant had a duty to provide. The kind of negligence that the jury attributed to defendant tended to cause exactly the kind of injury that plaintiff suffered.
Can a manufacturer be liable under a failure-to-warn theory in a case in which the substantial modification defense would preclude liability under a design defect theory?
The instant case does not require the court to decide the difficult question of whether New York would consider the risk posed by meat grinders to be obvious as a matter of law. A jury could reasonably find that there exist people who are employed as meat grinders and who do not know (a) that it is feasible to reduce the risk with safety guards, (b) that such guards are made available with the grinders, and (c) that the grinders should be used only with the guards. Moreover, a jury can also reasonably find that there are enough such people, and that warning them is sufficiently inexpensive, that a reasonable manufacturer would inform them that safety guards exist and that the grinder is meant to be used only with such guards. Thus, even if New York would consider the danger of meat grinders to be obvious as a matter of law, that obviousness does not substitute for the warning that a jury could, and indeed did, find that Hobart had a duty to provide. It follows that the court cannot say, as a matter of law, that Hobart had no duty to warn appellee in the present case. We therefore decline to adopt appellants' argument that the issue of negligence was for the court only and that the jury was not entitled, on the evidence, to return a verdict for appellee.