Mass Tort Defense

No Duty on Manufacturer to Design A Product that Cannot be Misused

Duty, foreseeability, and causation.  A recent decision by the Fourth Circuit involves these important tort concepts. See Durkee v. Geologic Solutions Inc., No. 12-1360 (4th Cir., 1/3/13).  Plaintiffs injured in a motor vehicle accident sued, trying to hold the maker of an in-vehicle texting system liable for their harm.

The product liability claims arose from a motor vehicle accident in North Carolina in which a fully loaded tractor-trailer ran into vehicles that were slowed or stopped in front. Appellants alleged that the truck driver became distracted by the presence of a texting system located in the cab of his truck. The texting system had been manufactured by defendant and appellants contended that the defendant owed them a legal duty of care because injuries to the traveling public were reasonably foreseeable based on the texting system’s design.  Specifically they pointed to the facts that the system (1) required the driver to divert his eyes from the road to view an incoming text from the dispatcher, and (2) permitted the receipt of texts while the vehicle was moving.

The district court granted the motions to dismiss, concluding that the accident was caused by the driver’s inattention, not the texting device itself, and that manufacturers are not required to design a product incapable of distracting a driver.

On appeal, appellants challenge the district court’s conclusion that defendant owed them no duty of care. The court of appeals concluded that the district court properly dismissed appellants’ claims, relying on the state tort law, see Kientz v. Carlton, 96 S.E.2d 14, 18 (N.C. 1957), holding that the duty owed by product manufacturer does not require him to guard against hazards apparent to the casual observer or to protect against injuries resulting from the user’s own patently careless and improvident conduct.

The district court correctly concluded that the accident was caused by the driver's inattention, not the texting device itself. "Misuse” in the sense of improper or careless use of the system by the driver, rather than a use that was unintended by the manufacturer. The fact that injuries to the traveling public were reasonably foreseeable based on the system's design does not create a duty.

Score one for personal responsibility.  

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Sean P. Wajert of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP