By James C. Moore
In Sclafani v. Brother Jimmy's BBQ, Inc., et al., the New York Supreme Court addressed two fundamental questions: (i) is Bacardi 151 Rum defectively designed because it is highly flammable and (ii) is the removal of the safety device from the bottle an unforeseeable, post-manufacturer modification absolving Bacardi of liability? James C. Moore, a trial lawyer and senior counsel to the firm of Harter Secrest & Emery LLP in Rochester, N.Y., examines the court's decision and reviews the current state of New York law governing strict liability and negligence in products cases.
"Recently, in, a New York Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a manufacturer of an admittedly dangerous product, which was equipped with a device intended to prevent misuse and injury, could nevertheless be held accountable for the consequences of its misuse. In Sclafani, the Court denied, because of the existence of questions of fact, the application of the Bacardi defendants (the product manufacturers) to dismiss the claims of plaintiff that defendants' product, Bacardi 151 Rum, was unreasonably dangerous because of a defective design. The Court further allowed plaintiff's claim for punitive damages to stand. "Given the early stage of the proceedings and the substance of the plaintiff's opposing papers, the Court's decision was hardly surprising. Nevertheless, the decision includes a comprehensive review of the current New York law governing strict liability and negligence claims against product manufacturers and is therefore worthy of review."The Sclafani case arose when the plaintiff was injured during a pyrotechnic display being performed by the bartender at Brother Jimmy's BBQ. The bartender is said to have poured Bacardi 151 Rum onto the bar, lit it on fire, and then poured additional 151 Rum into the flame. As a result, the flame traveled up the bottle, which then acted as a flamethrower and injured the plaintiff. "In addition to suing the bar and the bartender, the plaintiff sued Bacardi, alleging both strict liability and negligence. In her complaint, Ms. Sclafani stated that Bacardi was strictly liable to her for two reasons: First, the 151 Rum was defective and not reasonably safe because of its high flammability propensity. Second, the 151 Rum bottle was defectively designed because the flame arrester in the mouth of the bottle, whose purpose is to prevent a flame from traveling back up the bottle, was easily removable."
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