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  4.  » Is a manufacturer liable if someone else makes their product unsafe?

Is a manufacturer liable if someone else makes their product unsafe?

Recently a worker at a Queens grocery store was injured when his arm got caught in a meat grinder. According to news reports, the FDNY had to disassemble the machine to free him.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. In fact, this accident probably sounds very familiar to lawyers who handle product liability cases.

In 1998, the Court of Appeals heard a case called Liriano v. Hobart Corp. Mr. Liriano, a seventeen-year-old grocery store worker was using a commercial meat grinder when his arm got pulled in. It was so badly mangled that his right hand and forearm had to be amputated.

So, you may be thinking, “That’s too bad, but who puts their hand into a meat grinder?” Before you jump to any conclusions, here are the facts:

Commercial meat grinders are heavy-duty machines that are made to last for years. The meat grinder involved in Liriano’s accident, the Hobart 4046, was manufactured by the Hobart Corporation in 1961. You can still find them for sale today at food equipment websites and on eBay.

The basic operation of a meat grinder is straightforward: you feed chunks of meat into one end and ground meat comes out the other end.

Click this link to the Hobart 4046 Product Manual, which that shows what is going on inside the machine, so you know what I’m talking about.

The operator loads up the feed pan with chunks of meat and then feeds the chunks, bit by bit, through the feed pan guard (part #5), stuffing them down with the “stomper” (part #6 and, yes, that is really what Hobart calls it).  The chunks of meat fall into a tube with a worm screw (part #12) which pushes the meat into a spinning chopper blade (part #14) and through a plate (part #16). And, just like that, you have hamburger meat.

You might assume that the dangerous part of the machine is the spinning chopper blade. You would be partially right – it is dangerous. But, it’s not nearly as dangerous as the worm screw. You can lose a finger in the chopper blade, but you can lose an arm in the worm screw. That is because the motor driving the worm screw is powerful. And, if your hand gets too close to the worm screw, it’s going to do what it is designed to do – grab it and push it forward, just like a piece of meat.

OK, but there’s a guard and a “stomper” to stuff the meat, so why would your hand ever get near the worm screw? Answer: Because someone removed it and, like Mr. Liriano, you weren’t even aware it existed.

If you’ve never seen a meat grinder, it would seem obvious that the meat gets fed into the funnel above the worm screw. There is nothing to tell you that the feed pan and guard – the most important parts of the machine – are missing. And if you’ve never heard of a worm screw, you wouldn’t know that it is, by far, the most dangerous part of the machine. Add in some haste and a bit of over-zealousness in stuffing meat into the machine, and you have the perfect recipe for a horrible accident.

OK, you say, I can see how this can happen, but what did Hobart do wrong? After all, the machine they built and sold had a proper safety guard. If it was Mr. Liriano’s employer that removed the guard, shouldn’t the fault lie with them?

And that was the question the Court of Appeals faced when the case got to them. Hobart argued that they shouldn’t be held responsible when someone turns their safe product into an unsafe one by doing something stupid like removing a safety guard.

But Liriano argued that Hobart knew that their meat grinder could be turned into a dangerous product if someone removed the guard. So, he said Hobart should have affixed permanent warnings onto their machine to at least warn him that the machine has a guard and it needs to be in place.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Liriano, and so did a jury.

Of course, the question of whether a manufacturer is liable for failing to warn about the absence of a guard is a very case specific. If the operator, for example, knew that the machine should have a guard but ignored the danger and used it anyway, their failure to warn claim is basically kaput.

One pair of commentators said this about the Liriano decision:

A user oblivious to the obvious danger posed by placing his hand in a meat grinder would likely be equally oblivious to any warning to use the grinder with a guard.

That’s harsh. Fortunately, the Court of Appeals took a much more sensible and realistic view of the world. It doesn’t cost much for a manufacturer to put a warning label on their product, and there is no reason to assume that its benefit is lost on someone who has had an accident. After all, why not give the user the information they need to use the product safely, especially when a warning label costs so little and a serious accident costs so much?

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