State Supreme Court Issues Design Defect Ruling On Intrinsic Characteristics

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court's dismissal of strict liability and negligence claims against white lead carbonate pigment manufacturers, ruling that a product's characteristic ingredient cannot  constitute a design defect. See Ruben Baez Godoy v. E.I. du Pont Nemours and Co. et al., No. 2006AP2670 (Wisc. S.Ct.).

The court affirmed a circuit court's ruling that the complaint had failed to allege a design feature that rendered defective the design of white carbonate lead pigment, which can be found in white paint.
Plaintiff alleged lead poisoning from white lead carbonate pigment in the paint in his Milwaukee apartment, and sued DuPont, Armstrong Containers, Sherwin-Williams and American Cyanamid.
He asserted that despite alleged knowledge that lead is hazardous to human health, the manufacturers promoted the use of the pigment and marketed it as safe.

The lower court dismissed the design defect claims, finding  that lead is an inherent  characteristic of white lead carbonate, and thus the product cannot be designed without lead. The court of
appeals found that a product cannot be said to be defectively designed when that design is inherent in the nature of the product so that an alternative design would make the product something else.  This is the long-standing, but often misunderstood notion, that an alternative product is not an alternative design.  In those states in which a plaintiff must prove the existence of a feasible alternative design that would have avoided the injury, or in which the defendant may show the absence of any feasible alternative design, it is not enough for a plaintiff to point to a different product that might serve the same use. 

The state Supreme Court affirmed, noting that a claim for defective design cannot be maintained where the presence of lead is the alleged defect in design, and its very presence is a characteristic of the product itself.  Without lead, there can be no white lead carbonate pigment.  The court offered an analogy:  Foil for your kitchen use can be made using ingredients other than aluminum (gold, for example), but aluminum foil cannot be made without aluminum. The presence of aluminum is characteristic of aluminum foil. If the mere presence of aluminum posed a danger, a manufacturer might be liable based on the failure to adequately warn or other claims. However, the manufacturer
would not be liable based on the "design" of aluminum foil for including aluminum.

Interestingly, the court reaffirmed that Wisconsin strict products liability law does not require a
plaintiff to prove the feasibility of an alternative design.  However, the feasibility of an alternative design can be considered when evaluating a design defect claim. While plaintiff argued that it is inconsistent to reject a reasonable alternative design requirement and still maintain that characteristic ingredients of the product cannot support a claim for defective design, the court clarified that it was not requiring that a plaintiff affirmatively prove, through expert testimony, that an alternative design was commercially viable. The court was simply acknowledging that some ingredients cannot be eliminated from a design without eliminating the product itself. When the ingredient cannot be designed out of the product, the Restatement (Second) instructs that although other claims may be theoretically asserted, the proper claim is not design defect.  

That rationale would seem to apply to design defect claims in drug cases, where the characteristics of a chemical constituting an FDA-approved drug are challenged. The "design" of a typical drug cannot be changed without creating a different molecular structure, and hence  a different product, one which would require a second FDA approval.

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