Knowledge of Hazards and the Failure to Warn

Product liability is an area of the law that deals with when and how product manufacturers can be held liable for the creation or manufacture of products that cause injury to consumers. A central tenet of product liability is that manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers of known hazards in a product. Thus, for instance, toy manufacturers who create toys for children with small parts must be careful to warn consumers of the hazards that such small parts may pose for young children, such as toddlers.  Recently, the Sixth Circuit looked closely at product liability based on a failure to warn when the consumer was already aware of the known hazards of the product.

In Smith v. Joy Technologies, Mr. Smith was employed at a coal mine owned by Southern Coal Corporation in Kentucky.  The coal mine used a high wall mining (HWM) system to remove coal from the coal mine. Under this system, conveyor cars are pushed into the mine through a hydraulic system that pushes the cars forward.  The cars are loaded with coal, and, when all the cars are full, the system is reversed so that the cars can be extracted from the mine and the coal removed.  Guide rails typically operate alongside the car system in order to maintain the alignment of the cars.  Here, Mr. Smith was working to empty cars as they returned from the mine when an electrical cable on a car became stuck.  Mr. Smith went to dislodge the electrical cable and in so doing, placed his foot between the guide rail and the hydraulic pusher for the cars.  One of his coworkers mistakenly activated the hydraulic system, and the pusher engaged, crushing Mr. Smith’s foot between the pusher and the guide rail.  After several surgeries, Mr. Smith’s lower leg was ultimately amputated, and he was declared fully disabled.

Mr. Smith and his wife sued the manufacturer of the HWM system for product liability, including a failure to warn of the known dangers associated with the hydraulic system.  At trial, Mr. Smith testified that he was aware of the existence of a “pinch point” that could occur between the hydraulic pusher and the guide rails, and that he had received training on how to activate the HWM system’s emergency stops. However, he also testified that there was no warning system in place to alert workers to the pinch point. At the end of trial, Joy Technologies sought to use a jury instruction that informed jurors that a product manufacturer has no duty to warn a “knowing user” of a product defect.  The Smiths objected to this instruction but were overruled. The jury ultimately found for Joy Technologies, and the Smiths appealed.

On appeal, the Smiths argued that the trial court should have refused to instruct the jury that a product manufacturer does not have a duty to warn a consumer who is already aware of the hazard. In so arguing, the Smiths relied upon premises liability case law holding that an individual’s knowledge of open and obvious dangers does not prevent that individual from suing a landlord for such dangers if they cause injury. After reviewing this case law, the Sixth Circuit rejected the Smiths’ argument. It noted that, in Kentucky, it is well-established that a product manufacturer does not have a duty to warn a consumer about hazards that are already known by the consumer.  Since Mr. Smith testified that he had already been warned of the dangers of the “pinch point,” the court held that Joy Technology’s instruction was proper. Furthermore, the Sixth Circuit rejected the notion that the premises liability cases relied upon by the Smiths should be used to alter the existing product liability rules. The Sixth Circuit noted that these were two distinct areas of case law, and there was no reason why product liability laws should be changed to reflect premises liability standards.

The Smiths’ case clarifies that while product manufacturers have a duty to warn of known hazards, they cannot be held liable in Kentucky for a failure to warn when the consumer was already aware of the hazard.  Accordingly, when asserting a failure to warn claim, it is important to make certain that the plaintiff did not have prior knowledge of the danger. Experienced personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in evaluating your failure to warn claim and help you avoid these pitfalls. If you have recently been in an accident and are uncertain about your rights, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

What Constitutes a Known Dangerous Condition in Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 7, 2016.

Product Defects and Personal Injury – Tennessee Supreme Court Allows Auto Accident Case to Move Forward, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 30, 2015

Evaluating Dangerous Road Conditions in Tennessee – When is Notice of Risk Enough?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 19, 2015