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Worker Injured When Moving Conveyor

Was Manufacturer Liable For Failure to Warn?

Serpentix Conveyor Corporation manufactured three conveyor machines to be placed in a New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) facility. That facility was undergoing a renovation project which was being performed by WDF, Inc., as the general contractor, and various subcontractors.

The conveyors were delivered and then altered by WDF by adding caster wheels to allow them to be moved. Gennaro Montello, who was employed by the DEP, allegedly was injured while one of the conveyors was being moved, and subsequently died as a result of his injuries. The decedent’s estate and his wife, Donna Montello, who had since died, sued WDF, Serpentix, and others to recover damages. The amended complaint asserted a cause of action against Serpentix for strict products liability. Serpentix moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action.

The Supreme Court granted the motion. The Estate and Montello appealed.

A manufacturer who places a defective product into the stream of commerce may be liable for the injuries caused thereby. To that end, the defect may consist of a manufacturing defect, a design defect, or an inadequacy in, or the absence of, warnings for the use of the product. However, a manufacturer who has designed and produced a safe product will not be liable for substantial modifications or alterations made by a third party which render the product defective or otherwise unsafe.

In support of its motion for summary judgment, Serpentix submitted evidence showing that, at the time the conveyors were delivered, they were required to be affixed to the ground, but were then substantially altered to include casters to allow the conveyors to be moved. Serpentix established, prima facie, that the machine was substantially modified and that those modifications caused the conveyors to become defective and unsafe, thus shifting the burden to the Estate and Montello to tender sufficient proof in admissible form to require a trial. But they failed to do so. The Supreme Court correctly granted that branch of Serpentix’ motion which was for summary judgment dismissing so much of the strict products liability cause of action as was based upon a design defect.

Serpentix also established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law dismissing so much of the strict products liability cause of action as was based upon a failure to warn. To recover on a strict products liability cause of action based on inadequate warnings, a plaintiff must prove causation, i.e., that if adequate warnings had been provided, the product would not have been misused. In other words, for there to be recovery for damages stemming from a product defective because of the inadequacy or absence of warnings, the failure to warn must have been a substantial cause of the events which produced the injury.

Serpentix demonstrated that, after it learned of the alterations that were made to the conveyors, it informed WDF and the DEP of the need for the conveyors to be braced and sent them a plan for such bracing. It also indicated that the warranty on the conveyors would be voided without the bracing. WDF and the DEP declined to add bracing. Accordingly, Serpentix established that any alleged failure to warn was not a substantial cause of the events which produced the decedent’s injuries.

The Estate and Montello failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the alleged failure to warn was a proximate cause of the accident. The Supreme Court correctly granted that branch of Serpentix’ motion which was for summary judgment dismissing so much of the strict products liability cause of action as was based upon a failure to warn.

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