State Supreme Court Adopts Consumer Expectation Test for Alleged Food Defects

Our readers know that for nearly 50 years, an ongoing issue in product liability law has been the definition of "defect" within the strict liability context. A subtext to this ongoing discussion has been the appropriate test to apply to food products.  Earlier this month,  the “reasonable consumer expectation” test was adopted for food claims by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a strict liability claim involving a boneless turkey product. See Pinkham v. Cargill Inc., No. 2012 ME 85 (Me., 7/03/12).

Plaintiff allegedly consumed a hot turkey sandwich during his break.  Defendant  allegedly manufactured the boneless turkey product in the sandwich.  In the middle of or immediately after eating the sandwich, Pinkham allegedly experienced severe and sudden pain in his upper abdominal area and thought that he might be suffering from a heart attack. His doctors later determined that in their opinion he most likely had an “esophageal tear or perforation.” Plaintiff sued, alleging that this was a result of bone in the boneless turkey.

Although 50 percent of all turkey consumed in 1970 was during the holidays, today that number is around 31 percent as more people enjoy turkey year-round. In 2010, U.S. consumption of turkey was 16.4 pounds per person.  And turkey is now a $16 billion annual industry, according to the National Turkey Federation.  Readers will recall that our own Ben Franklin proposed the turkey as the national bird, at least in a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah on January 26, 1784.

Back to the litigation. Defendant moved for summary judgment. After considering the motion, the trial court granted the motion in favor of Cargill, noting that Maine had not yet established which test to use when evaluating a strict liability claim for an allegedly defective food product pursuant to Maine’s strict liability statute, 14 M.R.S. § 221. The court recognized that, prior to the enactment of the state's strict liability statute, courts used a test similar to the “foreign-natural” doctrine when addressing an injury caused by a food product in an implied warranty of merchantability case. E.g., Kobeckis v. Budzko, 225 A.2d 418, 423 (Me. 1967). Readers will recall that the “foreign-natural” doctrine provides that in general a food producer is not liable for anything found in the food product that naturally exists in the ingredients. E.g., Newton v. Standard Candy Co., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21886, at *6 (D. Neb. Mar. 19, 2008).  The major alternative has been the “reasonable expectation” test: which provides that regardless of whether a substance in a food product is natural to an ingredient thereof, liability will lie for injuries caused by the substance where the consumer of the
product would not reasonably have expected to find the substance in the product. E.g., Jackson v. Nestle-Beich, Inc., 589 N.E.2d 547, 548 (Ill. 1992).

The trial court proposed to evaluate the summary judgment motion under both the traditional
“foreign-natural” doctrine and the more recent  “reasonable expectation” test. The lower court concluded that, because bone is naturally found in turkey, and because the average consumer would reasonably expect to find bone fragments up to two millimeters in size in processed “boneless” turkey product (which the doctor had), the contents of the food bolus discovered in plaintiff's esophagus did not demonstrate that the product was defective, as a matter of law.

The supreme court noted that the state's strict liability approach was rooted in the Second Restatement.  It observed that the Restatement comments define “[d]efective condition” in part as a product that is “in a condition not contemplated by the ultimate consumer.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A cmt. g. The comments also define “[u]nreasonably dangerous”: “The article sold must be dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary
consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” Id. cmt. i.  Relying on these comments, the court moved to the reasonable expectations test.

Applying that standard, the supreme court ruled that plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence that an alleged defect in the boneless turkey product he consumed might have caused his surgery-requiring injury. There was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the turkey product caused the injury. One doctor testified that he believed that the injury was a “perforation secondary to a foreign body.”  There was direct evidence of the presence of the smaller pieces of bone or cartilage.  While there was no direct evidence of a larger piece of bone, the court thought a jury could conclude that a larger piece of bone could have been present in the turkey product Pinkham consumed, but may have passed, undetected, from Pinkham’s throat.

Whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a particular item in a food product is normally a question of fact that is left to a jury.  The court concluded that the trial court could not find as a matter of law that a food bolus containing one-to-two-millimeter bone fragments is not defective.  The question of whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a turkey bone or a bone
fragment large and/or sharp enough to cause an esophageal perforation in a “boneless” turkey product "s one best left to the fact-finder" said the court.

 

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