DO MANUFACTURERS OF PRODUCTS HAVE A DUTY TO RETROFIT OR RECALL A PRODUCT WHEN A DANGER IS LATER DISCOVERED?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Patton v. Hutchinson Wil-Rich Manufacturing Co., 253 Kan. 741, 861 P.2d 1299 (1993).
This case addresses the following issues:
Do manufacturers of products have a duty to provide a post-sale warning when a danger is later discovered?
Do manufacturers of products have a duty to retrofit or recall a product when a danger is later discovered?
Under Kansas law, manufacturers of products must provide adequate warnings concerning dangers posed by their products. Id. at 745. In this case, the court was asked to decide what obligations exists when a product is released and in use, but a danger or defect is later found. Id. Particularly, the court considered whether a manufacturer has a duty to provide additional warnings or a duty to retrofit or even recall the products. Id. Ultimately, the court found that a duty to provide additional warnings, either to a distributor or the ultimate consumer, may arise under appropriate circumstances. Id. at 744. However, Kansas law does not require a manufacturer to retrofit products or recall those products. Id.
The product at issue in this case was a farm implement known as the Wil-Rich Field Cultivator. Id. at 745. The equipment consists of a main body and two “wings” that can be raised and lowered. Id. The wings were held up by hydraulic cylinders which could be controlled from the cab of a tractor when the device was attached. Id. However, the wings could also be locked into place with lock pins when the wings did not need to be lifted or lowered during operation. Id. After approximately 15 years following the cultivator’s original manufacture (and roughly 8 years after that model and design were taken out of production), a danger was discovered. Id. If the hydraulic cylinders were not checked often, fluid could slowly leak and rob the cylinders of sufficient pressure to keep the wings lifted. Id. If the lock pins were removed while the wings were lift (and the fluid insufficient), the wing would rapidly fall. Id. This is what happened to Plaintiff, with the wing hitting his head and causing severe injury. Id.
The court began by noting that this was not a case of a defective product, but instead a danger that comes about from improper maintenance of the product. Id. at 755. Because of this, the court found that negligence, but not strict liability was proper under these circumstances. Id. Rather than fashion a hard and fast rule, the court noted that—as is typical with negligence claims, the circumstances of each case would control. Id. Under appropriate circumstances, a post-sale warning may be reasonable, and failure to provide that warning could be negligence. Id. Additionally, the circumstances would control who the warning goes to. Id. at 756. In the case of large farm equipment such as this, warning sellers of the product, who likely have better records of where the equipment currently is, is enough. Id. In other circumstances, direct warnings to the end consumer may be needed, and even publications and advertisements might be needed. Id.
Moving on to retrofitting and recalling, the court found there was no situation in which a manufacturer would be forced to retrofit or recall. Id. at 763. This may sound striking, but it makes some sense. Id. A manufacturer is free to decide whether to recall products—in an attempt to avoid liability—or decline to recall and face claims for injuries caused by the dangerous product. Id. Factoring in a requirement to retrofit or recall only confuses the situation. Id. The end result would be the same: liability for the manufacturer for injuries caused by the non-recalled products. Id.