DO MANUFACTURERS OF PRODUCTS HAVE A DUTY TO WARN ABOUT OBVIOUS DANGERS?
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.
Stevens v. Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co., 151 Kan. 638, 100 P.2d 723 (1940).
This case addresses the following issue:
Do manufacturers of products have a duty to warn about obvious dangers?
Kansas law requires a manufacturer of products to include sufficient warnings about dangers posed by products. Id. at 723. This case dealt with obvious dangers posed by a product. Id. The court was asked to determine when, if ever, a manufacturer must warn about an obvious danger and what exactly constitutes an obvious danger—obvious to anyone or obvious to an expert? Id. Ultimately, the court answered this question by determining that a manufacturer of a specialized product only needs to warn of dangers that would not be obvious to the intended user. Id.
The product at issue in this case was a combine that was used by attaching the machine to a tractor. Id. at 724. The combine attached to the tractor via a long “arm.” Id. This arm spun very fast, which in turn operated the combine. Id. The arm had three joints that permitted the tractor and combine to turn as it drove across fields. Id. These joints were completely exposed, while the long portion of the arm had a sleeve protecting it. Id. Plaintiff was a farmer that had purchased the combine and was using it on the date of his injury. Id. Plaintiff had stopped the tractor, but left the combine running while he unloaded threshed wheat into the bed of a pickup truck. Id. Plaintiff stepped too close to the exposed joint, and his loose-fitting clothes caught in the joint and began twisting rapidly. Id. This caused great injury to Plaintiff. Id.
The court began by noting that the joints could not be made safer, such as by covering with the joints with a sleeve as the rest of the arm was. Id. at 726. It was the openness of the joints that gave the combine its utility in being able to make sharper turns. Id. Thus, the question was whether a warning was needed to make the product reasonable safe. Id. However, an obvious danger is just that—obvious—so there is no need to warn. Id.
The danger of an exposed and rapidly turning joint of the combine’s arm was undisputedly not “obvious” to the average person. Id. at 727. But the product at issue here was not an everyday, household object. Id. It was a specialized piece of farm equipment. Id. The manufacturer could rely upon the user being familiar with the equipment, and least that equipment powered by a tractor generally is connected using a rapidly rotating arm. Id. In fact, Plaintiff had admitted that he knew the combine was powered in such as way. Id. Further, Plaintiff was experienced in using various equipment powered by tractors. Id. He also admitted that wearing loose-fitting clothing should be avoided by a worker that needs to work near these rotating parts. Id. Thus, Defendant did not have an obligation to warn about the exposed, rotating joints. Id.