Liriano v. Hobart Corp.
170 F.3d 264 (2d Cir. 1999)

  • While at his job at Super Associated, Liriano got his hand caught in a Hobart brand meat grinder.
    • The machine had been delivered with a safety guard in place, but Super Associated had removed the guard. There was no warning on the machine that it should not be operated without a guard.
  • Liriano sued Hobart, who brought a third party (impleader) lawsuit against Super Associated.
    • Liriano argued that Hobart failed to warn him of the danger.
    • Btw, Liriano sued the manufacturer because Super Associated was covered by Workers Comp Statutes couldn’t be made to pay for pain and suffering…
  • The Trial Court found for Liriano, and attributed blame to all three parties. (comparative negligence). Super Associated and Hobart appealed.
    • Super Associated and Hobart argued that there was no duty to warn, and even if there was, there wasn’t enough evidence and they should have won on summary judgment.
  • Since the Federal Appellate Court had to apply New York law, they asked (aka certified) two questions to the New York Supreme Court:
    • Do product manufacturers have a duty to warn?
    • What is the evidentiary standard for meeting that duty?
    • The New York Supreme Court responded that there was a duty to warn, but declined to answer whether there was sufficient evidence.
  • The Federal Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Federal Appellate Court looked to the case of Lorenzo v. Wirth (170 Mass. 596, 49 N.E. 1010 (1898)) where a person fell in a hole. The Court in that case basically said that the plaintiff didn’t really need to warn people to not fall into an obvious hole.
      • Similarly, the Court in this case found that there probably wasn’t a need to warn people to not stick their hands in meat grinders.
  • In a dissent it was argued that even for “obvious” dangers, there are lots of special considerations, and you can’t just dismiss the cases as a matter of law. There is an element of the fact-finder, no matter how obvious the danger seems.
    • In this case, there were numerous facts that made the issue more complicated than, “don’t stick your hand in a meat grinder stupid.” For example, Liriano had only been on the job a week, didn’t speak English well, and had received no instruction on how to use the machine.
    • This dissent has become the general standard, and most courts are wary of taking the issue of liability away from juries.
      • The basic rule is that there might still be a duty to warn even if the danger is clear. That’s an issue for a jury to decide on the facts, and it can’t be determined as a matter of law (hence no summary judgment).
  • In a way, you could say that Hobart’s failure to warn people to use the safety guard made the product defective because the reasonably foreseeable risks of harm could be reduced by the provision of adequate warning.
    • On the other hand, based on the consumer expectations test, you could say that since thee danger is obvious, how could the product fail to meet the consumer’s expectation for safety?