Products used in an industrial setting, such as forklift trucks, are typically designed to offer the purchaser the option of choosing certain safety features and excluding others that are available. The particular setting where the product will be used (its operating environment) will dictate which safety features are necessary, which may be undesirable, or in some instances, which may increase the risk of injury to the user. At the end of the day, New York courts have held that the decision as to which optional safety feature is appropriate is the responsibility of the purchaser – not the manufacturer – if it can be shown that the purchaser possesses sufficient knowledge about the product and the environment where it will be used.
The rationale is that a general rule mandating that every available “safety” feature be installed on the product, leaving no discretion to the purchaser, would be unwise because some safety features have drawbacks. A safety feature that is useful in one setting might pose an increased risk of injury to a user in another setting.
In 1999, the New York Court of Appeals, the highest Court in New York, decided Scarangella v. Thomas Built Buses, 717 N.E. 2d 679 (1999). The court held that a product that does not incorporate available safety devices is not defective as a matter of law if:
The buyer is thoroughly knowledgeable about the product and its use
In some normal uses, the product is not unreasonably dangerous without the safety device
The buyer can balance the benefits and risks of not having the safety device in its intended use.
In effect, the court held that a sophisticated purchaser should make the determination whether an optional safety feature should be included with a product because the purchaser is the most familiar with the environment where the product will be used and is in the best position to assess the potential risks.
If the facts of a particular case demonstrate that an optional safety feature would have prevented an accident, the manufacturer needs to show that Scarangella criteria have been met. Under NY law, the product is not defective as a matter of law if the purchaser was knowledgeable about the product, was advised of the optional safety feature, and made the decision not to purchase the optional safety feature due to considerations related to the operating environment in which the product would be used.
Through its marketing and sales materials, a manufacturer should advise its purchasers of optional safety features, including any potential drawbacks of specific options, to ensure that Scarangella factors are met. For example, manufacturers should consider obtaining written confirmation on sales materials that the purchaser has been offered optional features but declined to include them on the product. Feedback from purchasers should also be solicited to determine whether customers understand the pros and cons of various features and the environments in which they should be used. We ask that our readers offer their comments as to how they have dealt with this issue in their experience.