Class Certification Denied in Minivan Case

A federal court last week denied class certification in a case alleging that vehicle axles were allegedly prone to cracking.   See Martin v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2:10-cv-02203 (E.D. Pa., 7/2/13).

Plaintiff filed suit against Ford on behalf of himself and others similarly situated claiming breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, and violations of state consumer protection laws. The claim related to alleged issues with the rear axle installed on 1998½ -2003 Ford Windstars.  Plaintiff moved to certify four classes of Windstar owners: an express warranty class, an implied warranty class, a consumer protection act class, and an unjust enrichment class.  Each included owners from several different states. Plaintiff moved to certify these four classes pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and (b)(3), seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages on behalf of class members.

The court denied class certification in a lengthy and comprehensive opinion.  For our post, let's focus on the b(3) claim and the predominance element. Failure to satisfy the predominance requirement has doomed many an automotive defect cases. Federal courts have recognized that suits alleging defects involving motor vehicles often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect.

When a proposed class includes members from different states, there may be a choice of law problem that relates to predominance (as well as superiority and manageability). Several of the states in the express warranty class contain material differences in their legal definition of a breach of express warranty claim. Some of the group, but not all, required that a buyer show reliance on a statement or representation made by the seller as condition for recovery on a breach of express warranty claim. These differences undermine any finding of predominance. 

The court also found that a breach could not be proven without also inquiring into each individual class member’s Windstar experience, since the vast majority of Class members —approximately 83.2% — had not experienced any problems with their rear axles seven to twelve years after their vehicles were manufactured. In deciding whether Ford breached the express warranty that Windstars were “free from defects in material and workmanship,” a trier-of-fact could not solely look at evidence of Ford’s knowledge of the rear axle issues from 1997 through 2003, but must also consider how each axle performed through 2010. For example, a class member might own a 1998 Ford Windstar with 160,000 miles, which has been driven daily for twelve years without a problem. A second class member may have used his 2000 Windstar to travel constantly for business, putting 200,000 miles on the vehicle. A third class member may have only 50,000 miles on a 2003 Windstar because the class member drives the vehicle only on weekends. A fourth class member may have been forced to replace his original axle after only three months of use -- but because of a serious rear-end collision. None of these class members suffered an axle fracture. Were not these vehicles of different ages, with different mileage, in different conditions, which have been driven without a problem “free from defects”? These matters cannot be addressed by a trier-of-fact without consideration of the individual factual scenarios, said the court.

Even assuming breach could be proven on a class-wide basis, the calculation of damages for express warranty class members would be impossible without individualized inquiries into each claim.  The court cited to the Supreme Court's recent decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend that a model purporting to serve as evidence of damages in a class action must measure only those damages attributable to the theory of the case. If the model does not even attempt to do that, it cannot possibly establish that damages are susceptible of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3). 133 S. Ct. 1426, 1433 (2013). Here, plaintiffs' damages model was based on injury to the resale price of a used Windstar; but that price would be based on a multitude of factors, of which the allegedly defective rear axle is but one. See, e.g., Carpenter v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 1999 WL 415390, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 21, 1999) (value of a vehicle is dependent on a "whole host of individualized factors including age, mileage, repair and maintenance history and accidents or damage.’”); see also Chin v. Chrysler Corp., 182 F.R.D. 448, 463 (D.N.J. 1998)). The need to take into account this multitude of factors creates a proximate cause issue, and required individual proof. Good to see the lower courts applying this important Supreme Court guidance.

Similarly, proving breach of implied warranty, that the Ford Windstars were not “fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used,” was a question of fact with multiple relevant factors raising individual issues. Facts relevant to this inquiry would include not only the allegedly common testing and
monitoring of the axle but, as stated above in discussing the express warranty class, the experience of each individual Class member with the Ford Windstar.  And even if breach could be proven by using only common facts, the calculation of damages for the implied warranty class would face the exact same obstacle; again, approximately 83.2% of Windstar owners have not experienced any problems with
their rear axles. Plaintiff claimed that these Class members suffered damages through a reduction
in the resale value of their vehicles after a safety recall was initiated. Even assuming the recall did affect the market price for used Windstars, plaintiff had not provided a method to calculate the decrease in value on a class-wide basis.

Next the consumer protection claim required plaintiffs to prove each class member suffered a cognizable injury. To determine whether a class member suffered an “ascertainable loss,” and whether that loss was “as a result of” Ford’s alleged concealment or omission of information regarding the Windstar’s rear axle, would require the trier-of-fact to consider facts unique to each individual class member.  That is, plaintiff would encounter the same insurmountable obstacles in his attempt to prove a class-wide “ascertainable loss” suffered “as a result of” Ford’s conduct as he would encounter attempting to prove class-wide damages for the express and implied warranty classes.  Simply put, for a class member whose rear axle has not fractured — which was the vast majority of class members — proving a used Windstar suffered a loss in value because of Ford’s safety recall requires an inquiry into the age, mileage, and overall condition of the vehicle. This individual fact-gathering process would be essential to a consumer protection claim, and therefore fatal to the predominance requirement for class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).

Finally, the first element of an unjust enrichment claim — whether a class member conferred a benefit on Ford — again required an inquiry into each class member’s experience with the Windstar. Moreover, another element — whether it would be unjust for Ford to retain money provided by class members in view of the allegedly defective rear axle — was also incapable of proof without reference to individual facts. Ford’s actions could only be considered unjust if money was retained after selling a defective product. To prove a defect required the trier-of-fact to consider Ford’s conduct alongside each class member’s experience with the Windstar. The vast majority of class members have had no problems with their rear axles. The trier-of-fact would therefore have to consider whether Ford’s retention of the full purchase price of a 1998 Windstar, for example, was "unjust" in a situation where the Windstar has been driven by a class member for twelve years without incident.

Certification denied.

Supreme Court Issues Important Preemption Ruling

The Supreme Court last week reversed the First Circuit decision in Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, No. 12-142 (U.S., 6/24/13).

Readers will recall that in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 131 S. Ct. 2567 (2011), the Supreme Court held that state tort law claims against generic drug manufacturers based on the alleged inadequacy of the drug labeling are preempted; under the Hatch-Waxman Amendments to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, generic drug labeling must be the same as the labeling of the reference-listed drug. Because generic drug manufacturers cannot independently change the labeling, state law failure to warn claims are preempted.

Plaintiffs proceeded to hunt for exceptions, ways around the ruling.  One of the strategies was to resurrect design defect theories, which traditionally were not a major aspect of most drug plaintiff claims. This case was tried on a design defect theory of liability after the plaintiff’s failure to warn claims were dismissed prior to trial and the district court rejected the generic manufacturer’s preemption defense on the design claim.  The jury found for plaintiff, and defendant appealed, arguing that just as the manufacturer cannot alter the label, once a drug—whether generic or brand-name—is approved, the manufacturer is prohibited from making any major changes to the qualitative or quantitative formulation of the drug product, including active ingredients, or in the specifications provided in the approved new drug application.  In Bartlett, the First Circuit held that the plaintiff’s state law theory of liability could nevertheless be reconciled with federal law because, although the generic manufacturer could change neither the design nor the labeling, it could avoid liability if it stopped selling the drug entirely within the state.

The Supreme Court reversed.

New Hampshire imposes design defect liability where the design of the product created a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user. To determine whether a product is “unreasonably dangerous,” the New Hampshire Supreme Court employs a risk/utility approach under which a product is defective as designed if the magnitude of the danger outweighs the utility of the product. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly identified three factors as germane to the risk-utility inquiry: the usefulness and desirability of the product to the public as a whole, whether the risk of danger could have been reduced without significantly affecting either the product’s effectiveness or manufacturing cost, and the presence and efficacy of a warning to avoid an unreasonable risk of harm from hidden dangers or from foreseeable uses.  

In the drug context, either increasing the “usefulness” of a product or reducing its “risk of danger” would require redesigning the drug: a drug’s usefulness and its risk of danger are both direct results of its chemical design and, most saliently, its active ingredients. Here, said the Supreme Court, redesign was not possible, as the FDCA requires a generic drug to have the same active ingredients, route of administration, dosage form, strength, as the brand-name drug on which it is based. Given the impossibility of redesigning the drug, the only way for the defendant to ameliorate the drug’s “risk-utility” profile—and thus to escape liability—was to strengthen the presence and efficacy of the warning in such a way that the warning avoided an unreasonable risk of harm from hidden dangers or from foreseeable uses.

That was, of course, preempted.  When federal law forbids an action that state law requires, the state law is “without effect.” Because it is impossible for generic manufacturers to comply with both state and federal law, New Hampshire’s warning-infused design defect cause of action was pre-empted with respect to FDA-approved drugs sold in interstate commerce.

The Supreme Court rejected the argument that a defendant could satisfy both laws by paying tort judgments or refraining from selling its product in that particular state. And rejected the “stop-selling” rationale as incompatible with its pre-emption jurisprudence. The Court's pre-emption cases presume that an actor seeking to satisfy both his federal and state law obligations is not required to cease acting altogether in order to avoid liability. Indeed, if the option of ceasing to act defeated a claim of impossibility, impossibility pre-emption would be all but meaningless. The incoherence of the stop-selling theory becomes plain when viewed through the lens of the previous cases. In every instance in which the Court has found impossibility pre-emption, the direct conflict between federal and state law duties could easily have been avoided if the regulated actor had simply ceased acting.

Interestingly, there is nothing in the Court's rejection of “stop-selling” limiting it to generic drugs; the rejection seems applicable to all federally regulated products because it's not based on the FDCA but is an argument “incompatible with our pre-emption jurisprudence.”

 

Summary Judgment for Defendant in Heater Case

A federal court granted defendant summary judgment in a products case alleging that a  propane heater that exploded was responsible for plaintiff's husband's death.  See Ayala v. Gabriel Building Supply, No. 2:12-cv-00577 (E.D. La., 4/26/13).

Plaintiff filed a wrongful death and survival action in state court. Defendants removed the matter and the federal court dismissed plaintiff's claims for negligence, strict liability, and manufacture of an ultra hazardous project, holding that plaintiff's theories of recovery are limited to the Louisiana Products and Liability Act ("LPLA").  Under Louisiana law, the LPLA provides the exclusive remedy against manufacturers in a products liability action. Demahy v. Schwarz Pharma, Inc., 702 F.3d 177, 182 (5th Cir. 2012). To maintain a successful action under the LPLA, a plaintiff must prove: "(1) that the defendant is a manufacturer of the product; (2) that the claimant's damage was proximately caused by a characteristic of the product; (3) that this characteristic made the product 'unreasonably dangerous'; and (4) that the claimant's damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product . . . . " Stahl v. Novartis Pharms. Corp., 283 F.3d 254, 261 (5th Cir. 2002). 

Defendants then moved for summary judgment on the basis that the subject heater was not "unreasonably dangerous" under the LPLA. A product can be "unreasonably dangerous" in four ways: (i) in construction or composition; (ii) in design; (iii) for failure to provide an adequate warning; and (iv) for failure to conform to an express warranty.

One of plaintiff's claims was design defect.  A product is unreasonably dangerous in design if, at the time the product left the manufacturer's control:
(1) There existed an alternative design for the product that was capable of preventing the claimant's damage; and
(2) The likelihood that the product's design would cause the claimant's damage and the gravity of that damage outweighed the burden on the manufacturer of adopting such alternative design and the adverse effect, if any, of such alternative design on the utility of the product La. Rev. Stat. § 9:2800.56.

Plaintiff failed to present any credible evidence that an alternative design existed that could have prevented plaintiff's injuries. And there was no evidence regarding the burden of adopting the design and
any adverse effect on the utility of the heater. Given the foregoing, plaintiff could not prove that the
subject heater was unreasonably dangerous in design.

To prevail under the manufacturing defect (construction or composition theory), Louisiana courts require the plaintiff to (i) set forth the manufacturer's specifications for the product and (ii) demonstrate how
the product materially deviated from those standards so as to render it unreasonably dangerous. Roman v. W. Mfg, Inc., 691 F.3d 686, 698 (5th Cir. 2012). Plaintiff's expert opined that the most probable cause of the fire and the injuries was a propane leak in the subject heater. However, since all non‐ferrous components of the subject heater melted in the fire, he based his opinion on an examination of another heater.  He conceded that there was no evidence to suggest the subject heater itself was defective. In fact, the expert admitted that he could not conclusively rule out other potential sources of a propane leak, such as a faulty propane tank or plaintiff's failure to properly secure the fitting.  That didn't meet the burden.

To maintain a failure‐to‐warn claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the product possessed a characteristic that may cause damage and the manufacturer failed to use reasonable care to provide an adequate warning of such characteristic and its danger to users of the product. Stahl, 283 F.3d at 261. In all cases, however, a manufacture is liable for inadequate warning only if such defect was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury. Peart v. Dorel Juvenile Grp., Inc., No. 09–7463, 2011 WL 1336563, at *3 (E.D. La. Apr. 7, 2011).  In addition to proving causation in fact, a plaintiff must also demonstrate that the inadequate warning was the most probable cause of his injury. See Wheat v. Pfizer, Inc., 31 F.3d 340, 342 (5th Cir. 1994). Here, Plaintiff failed to meet this burden of establishing causation. Indeed, Plaintiff's expert failed to adequately support a defect, as above, and offered nothing credible to establish a causal connection between the alleged failure to provide an adequate warning and plaintiff's injury.

 

 

Amicus Weighs In On Daubert Issue in Court of Appeals

The Product Liability Advisory Council weighed in as amicus earlier this month, asking the Eleventh Circuit to reverse a district court ruling that had allowed unreliable expert testimony in a case involving Jet Skis. See Megan Sands v. Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. et al., No.12-14667 (11th Cir.).

The PLAC brief  is part of the litigation arising from a complaint originally filed in Florida in 2007 by Georgia college student Megan Sands, who was riding as a passenger on a Kawasaki 2003 Ultra 150 Jet Ski in the Bahamas when she was thrown backward from her seat into the water.  She alleged this caused her to suffer severe, extensive and permanent damage to her lower extremities. Sands alleged that the device was defective because it did not have either a raised seat back or a “sissy bar” to prevent passengers from falling backward, or a kill switch that would allow an ejected passenger to cut off the engine.The case went to trial, resulting in a favorable verdict for Kawasaki on strict liability and negligent failure to warn claims but a finding in favor of Sands on design defect claims. Defendant appealed.

The amicus brief focused on the trial court's gate-keeping obligations under the Daubert standard, and the testimony of plaintiff's expert Burleson concerning an alternative seat design for the jet ski. PLAC argued that he presented no testing or engineering analysis to show that the alternative design would have improved the overall safety and utility of the product. Instead, his opinion rested
solely on an unsupported, conclusory statement in his report, which was precisely the kind of "analytical leap" and ipse dixit condemned in prior cases.  Kawasaki did not challenge the
admissibility of Burleson's assertion that his seat back concept, if used, might have eliminated or reduced the risk of injury to this plaintiff. Rather, as Kawasaki had argued below, Burleson had not tested whether a seatback would pose other dangers of equal or greater magnitude to the danger it would supposedly address.

The trial court appeared to describe the issue merely as whether "adequate testing" was conducted, but the testing evidence was not responsive to the specific objection that Kawasaki had raised. Neither the Plaintiff nor the trial court, said PLAC, ever identified any test or other engineering data supporting Burleson's conclusory assertion about the overall safety of the alternative design.

PLAC also focused on the trial court's statement that it was "unable to say that Mr. Burleson's testimony regarding a fixed seatback is unreliable," which sounded like the court switched the burden to show unreliability to Kawasaki. The absence of an admission by Burleson that the
alternative design would introduce a risk of other hazards should not have permitted the jury to
conclude that the alternative design was reasonable. Substantive tort law places the burden on the plaintiff to establish that the proposed alternative design would have greater overall safety than the existing design, and procedural law  imposes the burden on the proponent of expert testimony to establish its reliability. PLAC argued that a trial court does not have discretion to switch the burden under Rule 702 from the proponent of expert evidence to the opponent of such evidence. 

One to keep an eye on.

 

State Supreme Court Affirms Exclusion of Experts' Inferential Opinions

Follow our train of thought: we have posted about the misuse of the differential diagnosis concept, as plaintiff experts morph it from an accepted tool for deciding what is wrong with a patient to a method for explaining why and how the patient suffered his injury/illness.  Now, three computer experts sought to opine that a software flaw prevented a health monitor alarm from sounding, claiming their methodology was just "like a medical differential diagnosis"!  Fortunately, the South Carolina Supreme Court rejected that attempt last week.  See Graves v. CAS Medical Systems Inc., No. 27168 (S.C., 8/29/12).

Their doctor ordered that the plaintiffs use a monitor manufactured by CAS to track their infant child's breathing and heart rates as a precaution. The monitor was designed to sound an alarm, if the subject were to experience an apneic, bradycardia, or tachycardia event. Once the breathing or heart rate returns to normal, the alarm stops. Each machine also keeps a log of any events, which is the term for when the alarm sounds, and records the pertinent data and vital signs. As an additional safety measure, CAS installed not only a back-up alarm, but also a feature that records whether the alarm sounded. This system operates primarily through an independent and separate microphone specifically designed to listen for the alarm. If it hears the alarm, it then makes a notation in the monitor's internal log. If it does not hear the alarm, then it records "Front alarm not heard," and the monitor will sound the backup alarm. A microphone listens for this back-up alarm as well and records whether it was heard. If the back-up alarm fails, all the lights on the front of the monitor flash.

Tragically, the child died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which essentially means that no attributable cause of death exists. Plaintiffs claimed the monitor's alarm never sounded that night. Additionally, they testified that all the lights on the front of the monitor were on, although they were solid and not flashing. Another family member who was asleep downstairs also allegedly could not recall hearing the alarm go off.  Plaintiffs further testified the machine was not turned off until the next day, when the monitor was removed for testing.

Plaintiffs filed a strict liability design defect claim against CAS, contending the monitor's software design caused the alarm to fail.  Their claim revolved around what is known as "spaghetti code," which is when computer code is unstructured and can result from the overuse of "goto" or "unconditional branch" statements, which causes a signal working its way through the code to jump around instead of following a linear path.  This in turn caused the signal to be pushed off course and never reach its destination.

To support this theory, the Graves designated three software experts to testify regarding the alarm's alleged failure. In arriving at their conclusions that a software defect caused the alarm to fail, none of the experts did much actual testing of the software. Instead, they used a "reasoning to the best inference" analysis, which was "similar to a differential diagnosis" in the medical field. In this case, three potential causes were identified: hardware error, complaint error, and software error. Complaint error means that the monitor was misused or the alarm did sound and the Graves failed to hear it.  All the experts were able to dismiss hardware error as a cause because the machine was tested and shown to be functioning properly. Thus, the question became whether complaint error or a software error occurred.

The experts excluded complaint error because the machine was hooked up properly, and they did not believe anyone would sleep through the alarm. In other words, because the Graves claimed the alarm did not wake them, that means it must not have gone off. After being confronted with the fact that the monitor listens for the alarm and separately records whether it was sounded, the experts opined that it must be "certain" the internal logs showing the alarm actually did sound were not reliable "in light of the undisputed testimony that the alarm did not function." That left software error as the most likely cause of the alleged failure, they opined.

Defendant moved to have all these experts excluded, arguing none of them met the reliability factors for scientific testimony set forth in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 515 S.E.2d 508 (1999). CAS also moved for summary judgment, contending that without this expert testimony plaintiffs had no evidence of a design defect. The trial court agreed that their opinions were unreliable both as scientific evidence and as nonscientific evidence and thus were inadmissible. Having excluded the opinions of all the Graves' experts, the lower court granted CAS's motion for summary judgment.

The state Supreme Court noted that this was its first opportunity to assess the reliability of an opinion rendered using the "reasoning to the best inference" methodology, so looked for guidance to the analysis of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which had already done so. In Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227 (10th Cir. 2004), the court held that "[e]xperts must provide objective reasons for eliminating alternative causes" when engaging in this analysis. Id. at 1237. Furthermore, "an inference to the best explanation for the cause of an accident must eliminate other possible sources as highly improbable, and must demonstrate that the cause identified is highly probable." Id. at 1238. Although the expert need not categorically exclude all alternate causes, that does not relieve the expert of his burden to prove the alternate cause is at least highly improbable based on an objective analysis. See id. at 1237–38 & n.6. The court found this objectivity requirement consistent with the quality control element of State v. Council.

Here, there was evidence that the alarm worked properly and the plaintiffs failed to hear it. In addition to the monitor's recordation of hearing the alarm sound, the family pediatrician testified he believed plaintiffs slept through it, the court noted. The doctor was aware of just how exhausted the parents were. Although the alarm is loud, if one is tired enough, he testified that it is possible to sleep through it. His opinion was bolstered by the fact that the machine seems to have worked just as it was supposed to and recorded the breathing issues perfectly. The log also seems to show the alarm managed to stimulate the baby into breathing normally at times.

This evidence does not mean that is exactly what happened.  But there was enough that an expert needed to take it into account.. Instead, the experts simply assumed the alarm did not sound and provided no reason for discounting the evidence to the contrary other than the assertion of the persons alleging a failure. Thus, they did not objectively discount the evidence of complaint error as required. See Clark v. Takata Corp., 192 F.3d 750, 757 (7th Cir. 1999) ("Simply put, an expert does not assist the trier of fact in determining whether a product failed if he starts his analysis based upon the assumption that the product failed (the very question that he was called upon to resolve), and thus, the court's refusal to accept and give credence to [the expert's] opinion was proper.").

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the opinions, and summary judgment was warranted. 

Court of Appeals Reverses Daubert Decision

A tip of the hat to our DRI colleague Mike Weston for alerting us to an interesting 10th Circuit opinion from a couple weeks ago, Hoffman v. Ford Motor Co., 2012 WL 3518997 (10th Cir. Aug. 16, 2012).

Plaintiff was injured in a rollover car accident, and sued the car manufacturer alleging that a defect in the seat belt buckle caused it to release during the accident and allow her to be ejected from the vehicle.  In support of this theory, plaintiff presented the opinion of Dr. Good, a mechanical engineer, who theorized that the buckle most probably inertially unlatched during the accident due to an alleged design defect.  He ran a series of tests on buckles allegedly similar to the one in the accident, but ran into issues when he needed to make a comparison of the data from his lab tests to data from crash rollover tests to determine if the situation measured in the lab could actually occur in the real world.  Specifically, there was an absence of available data from relevant rollover crash tests (which present dynamic, multi-dimensional forces working on the component), and so he compared his results to data from planar crash data -- ones focused on only the horizontal plane (for example, a frontal car crash).

Ford moved to exclude the opinions as unreliable under Daubert, but the district court  (without a hearing) denied the motion, concluding Ford had failed to prove that the differences between the lab test results and the real world rollover accidents were significant.  Defendant appealed. (Note, whether she was even wearing her seat belt at all was hotly contested at trial. For purposes of the Daubert issue, the court assumed she was.) 

The court of appeals concluded that in permitting the testimony, the district court had not been "a sufficiently exacting gatekeeper; Daubert requires more precision."  Plaintiff failed to present a sufficient scientific connection between the accelerations and forces the expert found necessary to unlatch the buckles in the lab, and the acceleration and forces that would have occurred in the actual accident on the street. 

Specifically, the court of appeals held that the trial court should NOT have chastised the defendant for failing to show how the deficiency mattered, the failure to use rollover crash data. And the trial court should not have deemed it "unfair" for Ford to criticize the plaintiff because of the limited amount of rollover crash data available to the expert.  The state of the science is what it is.  And Ford did more than point out a deficiency in the method; it also explained why the deficiency rendered the testing and comparison suspect.  More importantly for our readers, "it was not Ford's burden to show Good's inertial unlatch opinion was unreliable and irrelevant.  Rather, it was plaintiff's burden to show reliability and relevancy."

It was undisputed engineering science that once a component is tested, the results must be applied to the whole vehicle setting; the lab results must be compared to data from the real world. Merely showing that similar buckles can be made to unlatch under certain lab conditions is irrelevant to whether the buckle at issue unlatched in the accident absent proof that the lab conditions were present and can be adequately and accurately related to the actual rollover-type accident.  Plaintiff's expert failed to explain adequately how the acceleration and forces present in the planar crash tests were similar enough to those present in a rollover accident. Nowhere did he show how his comparison was scientifically valid. Thus, his opinion was based on mere speculation, or on the assumption, that the levels of forces he found necessary to unlatch buckles in the lab were substantially similar to those that occurred in the subject accident.

Absent such evidence, plaintiff could not meet her burden.  Since plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to present the case, and made no attempt to add or substitute other evidence, the court of appeals remanded with instruction for the district court to enter judgment as a matter of law for defendant.

 

 

Failure of Expert Testimony on Alternative Designs Dooms Claim

A New Jersey appeals court ruled recently that plaintiffs' expert testimony was indeed insufficient in a suit over a fire and explosion involving a furnace used to manufacture super alloys for aerospace uses. See Leonard et al. v. Consarc Corp., No. A-1413-10T4, (N.J. Superior Court,  Appellate Division).

Plaintiffs were employed by Howmet Dover Alloy, which uses a vacuum induction melting furnace (VIM) to manufacture super alloys for aerospace uses. Howmet contracted with Consarc to retrofit and upgrade a VIM located at its Dover facility. As part of that project, Consarc manufactured a new vacuum chamber and dome, an industrial crucible to fit inside the vacuum chamber, and controls for the device.  Allegedly, while Howmet employees were melting super alloys in the VIM's interior crucible, it tipped and spilled molten super alloy onto the floor, causing such extreme conditions of heat that fires broke out in adjacent areas. The fire department responded and got the blaze under control.

Allegedly, Howmet workers then began to assess the situation for clean-up. In an effort to get a better view of the condition of the crucible and chamber, the workers removed the glass from sight ports, opened various valves, and turned on the vacuum pumps to extract the smoke from the fire. The pumps expelled the smoke but also the argon gas used to suppress the fire. As the argon gas was removed, it was replaced by air drawn in through the sight ports, the now open valve, and, possibly, a hole in the chamber resulting from the original fire.

However, a substantial quantity of unburned oil and resulting vapor remained in the chamber, and  molten metal or still hot walls ignited the air-oil mixture and caused an explosion. Plaintiffs were allegedly injured.

They sued alleging defective product design. Plaintiffs retained a mechanical engineer as an expert in the analysis of "industrial accidents, mechanical malfunctions, fires and explosions." He issued a report which concluded that (1) the hydraulic hose used to deliver hydraulic fluid required to tilt the crucible containing the molten metal alloys was touching or extremely close to the interior floor of the chamber at the time of the accident, which constituted a defect in the design because the hose could not withstand coming into contact with molten alloy; and (2) the dome of the chamber was defectively designed because it should have been protected by exterior shields to repel any hazardous gases emerging from inside the furnace.

Defendant moved to exclude the expert as unqualified, but the trial judge concluded that he was qualified as an expert under Rule 702, and denied Consarc's motion. He held that, while the witness did "not have specific experience in the field of vacuum induction furnaces, [or] melting furnaces, [he] certainly has overall experience in the analysis of industrial accidents, mechanical malfunctions, fires and explosions."

At the conclusion of plaintiffs' case at trial, Consarc moved for an involuntary dismissal pursuant to NJ Rule 4:37-2(b).  Although the trial judge did not agree with all of Consarc's arguments in support of an involuntary dismissal, he granted the motion to dismiss on the following grounds: (1) the expert gave a net opinion as to the inadequacy of any existing hose and the proposed relocation of the connections for the interior hydraulic hose; (2) he gave a net opinion as to the
feasibility of placing protective shields around the dome of the furnace; and (3) Howmet's conduct after the explosion (the inspection actions) served as an intervening and superseding cause that precluded Consarc's liability.

In New Jersey, design defect is defined by the Products Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 to -11,
as something that renders a product not "reasonably fit, suitable, or safe for its intended purpose." N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2. A design defect is further defined as a danger inherent in a product that has been manufactured as intended when that danger, as a public policy matter, is greater than can be justified by the product's utility.  When a product is manufactured as intended but the design renders the product unsafe, the first element of a design defect case exists.  In addition, the defect must have existed when the product left the hands of the manufacturer. If the plaintiff contends that an alternative design would have rendered the product safe, the plaintiff must also prove that a practical and feasible alternative design existed that would have reduced or prevented the harm.  Lewis v. Am. Cyanamid Co., 155 N.J. 544, 560 (1998).

A claim that there could have been an alternative design requires support by expert opinion that the proposed alternative design was available at the time of manufacture and that it was practical,
feasible and safer. Expert testimony in conclusory terms is insufficient to meet that burden. N.J.R.E. 703 requires an expert to give the why and wherefore of his or her opinion rather than a mere conclusion.  Jimenez v. GNOC, Corp., 286 N.J. Super. 533, 540 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 145 N.J. 374 (1996). Therefore, experts must be able to identify the factual bases for their conclusions, explain their methodology, and demonstrate that both the factual bases and the methodology are scientifically reliable.

Plaintiffs appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed.  The witness did not have the expertise or the factual basis for opining that there was a feasible alternate design for the hose connection points. As a consequence, his opinion amounted to nothing more than a net opinion. The same problems apply to his opinion with respect to the dome. He testified that there should have been shields around the top of the dome to prevent discharged material from injuring anyone standing nearby. He also asserted that it would have been very simple to do so. However, he was not aware of any such design in actual use and he provided no details to demonstrate that his proposed design was actually feasible. The witness had no expertise in the field of vacuum
induction furnaces. His qualifications were, at best, minimal with respect to the type of  sophisticated machinery involved in this case. More importantly, he offered no specifics with respect to the details and feasibility of the alternative designs upon which he relied. For that reason, plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to prove that alternate designs were available, feasible, and practical at the time of manufacture.

Product Seller (Still) Has No Duty To Protect From Criminal's Use Of Product

Country music fans among our readers may recall the Garth Brooks' song "Longneck Bottle."  That tune, from his CD "Sevens," reached No. 1 on the country charts in 1997.  In it, the singer pleads for the long neck bottle to stay clear of his hand.  Today's post might be sub-titled, "longneck bottle stay clear of my face."  In Gann v. Anheuser-Busch Inc., No. 11-00017 (Tex. App. 7/26/12), a plaintiff asserted liability against the maker of a longneck glass beer bottle for injuries allegedly suffered when she was struck in the face by a bar patron wielding the bottle as a weapon.

While celebrating a friend’s birthday "at a bar known for its violence," according to the court, Gann was assaulted by a patron wielding a Budweiser “longneck” glass beer bottle. She sued for an alleged design defect in the bottle, with the typical strict liability and negligence counts.  The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, and plaintiff appealed.

In a strict products liability action in which a claimant alleges a design defect, a Texas claimant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the defect renders the product “unreasonably dangerous;” (2) the defect was a producing cause of the personal injury, property damage, or death for which the claimant seeks recovery; and (3) there was a safer alternative design. TEX.CIV.PRAC.&REM.CODE ANN. § 82.005(a)(West 2011); Timpte Indus., Inc. v. Gish, 286 S.W.3d 306, 311 (Tex. 2009). To determine whether a product was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous, the courts apply a risk-utility analysis that requires consideration of the following factors:
(1) the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole weighed against the gravity and likelihood of injury from its use;
(2) the availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be unsafe or unreasonably expensive;
(3) the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without seriously impairing its usefulness or significantly increasing its costs;
(4) the user’s anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions; and
(5) the expectations of the ordinary consumer.

Defendant made an interesting threshold, no-duty, argument, that rings true to MassTortDefense. As a matter of law, Anheuser-Busch had no legal duty to design the longneck bottle against purposeful and criminal misuse because it satisfied its one and only legal duty: to design the bottle to ensure that the bottle was safe for its intended and ordinary use – storing beer.
In support of its argument, Anheuser-Busch cited to Venezia v. Miller Brewing Co., 626 F.2d 188 (1st Cir. 1980), a case we used when teaching products liability in law school. In Venezia, the federal appeals court applied Massachusetts law to hold that the plaintiff, who was injured by the broken shards of the beer bottle he deliberately threw against a pole, could not recover from Miller Brewing under a theory of negligent design, because the deliberate misuse of the beer bottle could not be characterized as an intended or ordinary use of the beer bottle. 626 F.2d at 189, 191-92.  The Texas court of appeals felt that it need not address this issue of duty however, given the other fatal flaws in plaintiff's case.

Specifically, plaintiff argued that beer bottles are used commonly in assaults in the local community, that the longneck portion of the bottle is merely cosmetic, and that Anheuser-Busch also can use stubby glass bottles and plastic bottles as suitable containers for beer. However, contrary to her assertion, Gann failed to produce evidence raising a genuine issue of fact that the risk of injury from the longneck bottle outweighed its utility, and therefore that the bottle was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous. Specifically, plaintiff failed to adequately address: (1) whether manufacturing a stubby glass bottle or plastic bottle is sufficiently economically feasible; (2) whether eliminating the allegedly unsafe character of a longneck bottle significantly impaired its usefulness or significantly increased its costs; and (3) what the expectations of the ordinary consumer are with regard to this kind of bottle.

Turning to the negligence count, the threshold inquiry in a negligence case is duty. Centeq Realty, Inc. v. Siegler, 899 S.W.2d 195, 197 (Tex. 1995). Generally, no person has a legal duty to protect another from the criminal acts of a third person. Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 756 (Tex. 1998). (One exception to this rule may apply when a person controls the premises where the criminal acts occur.)   Whether a duty exists is a question of law for the court to decide from the facts surrounding the occurrence at issue. (Other courts may analyze this issue as one of causation, with the criminal act of the third-party breaking the chain of causation from defendant's alleged negligence to plaintiff's alleged injury.)

Plaintiff argued that because defendants did not contest that the use of longneck bottles as weapons in bars has happened, and thus was arguably foreseeable (cue "Friends in Low Places"?), the defendants then had a legal duty to protect her from being assaulted in such a situation. Even conceding that it is reasonably foreseeable that a longneck bottle might be used as a weapon, plaintiff failed to show why the general principle that no person has a legal duty to protect another from the criminal acts of a third person was inapplicable in this case. Mere foreseeability that a legal product might be used in a crime does not create a duty that overshadows the intervening criminal act. Summary judgment affirmed. 
 

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.

 

Laptop Claims Were Mere Puffery

The Ninth Circuit late last month issued an interesting little opinion on the venerable and useful notion of puffing. Vitt v. Apple Computer Inc., No. 10-55941 (9th Cir., 12/21/11).

The crux of plaintiff's contention, building on his dissatisfaction that his iBook G4 allegedly failed shortly after his one year warranty had expired, was that the iBook G4 does not last “at least
a couple of years,” which he alleged was the minimum useful life a reasonable consumer expects from a laptop.  Vitt alleged that this was because one of the solder joints on the logic board of the iBook G4 degraded slightly each time the computer was turned on and off, eventually causing the joint to break and the computer allegedly to stop working -- shortly after Apple’s one year express warranty has expired. Vitt further alleged that Apple affirmatively misrepresented the durability, portability, and quality of the iBook G4, and did not disclose the alleged defect.

The district court held that Apple’s affirmative statements were non-actionable puffery, and that Apple had no duty to disclose the alleged defect , citing Daugherty v. American Honda Motor Co., 144 Cal. App. 4th 824 (2006).

The court of appeals affirmed, for substantially the reasons given by the district court. To be actionable as an affirmative misrepresentation, a statement must make a “specific and  measurable claim, capable of being proved false or of being reasonably interpreted as a statement of objective fact. Coastal Abstract Serv. v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 173 F.3d 725, 731 (9th Cir. 1999). California courts have also held that "mere puffing" cannot support liability under
California consumer protection laws. Vitt challenged Apple’s advertising because it allegedly stated that the iBook G4 was “mobile,” “durable,” “portable,” “rugged,”  “reliable,” “high performance,” “high value,” an “affordable choice,” and an “ideal student laptop.” These statements are generalized, non-actionable puffery because they contain “inherently vague and generalized terms” and were “not factual representations that a given standard has been met.”   

Even when viewed in the advertising context, as Vitt urged, these statements did not claim or imply that the iBook G4’s useful life will extend for at least two years.  For example, to the extent that “durable” is a statement of fact, it may imply in context that the iBook G4 is resistant to problems occurring because of its being bumped or dropped, but not that it will last for a duration beyond its express warranty.

Vitt also contended that Apple had an affirmative duty to disclose the alleged defect. But a  consumer’s only reasonable expectation was that the computer would function properly for the duration of the limited warranty. There is no duty to disclose that a product may fail beyond its warranty period absent an affirmative misrepresentation or a safety risk.  Adopting Vitt’s theory would effectively extend Apple’s term warranty based on subjective consumer expectations. The court of appeals agreed with the district court that Apple was under no duty to disclose the alleged "defect" in its iBook G4s.  Claims dismissed.

  

Proposed TV Class Action Dismissed Again

A California federal  court has again dismissed a proposed class action brought against Sony Corp. of America regarding allegedly defective televisions. Marchante, et al. v. Sony Corp. of America Inc., et al., No. 3:10-cv-00795 (S.D. Calif.).

Plaintiffs alleged that overheating caused the chassis and internal parts of nine different Sony rear-projection televisions to melt or burn during normal use. Plaintiffs, on behalf of  a proposed class of purchasers, claimed that Sony violated several consumer protection statutes (such as, typically the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act) and breached express and implied warranties by selling them the defective televisions. Earlier this year, the court dismissed without prejudice all of the claims, and plaintiffs filed an amended pleading.  Defendants again moved to dismiss.

The court reviewed the Twombly/Iqbal standards, and ruled that the plaintiffs had not fixed the pleading problems. Plaintiffs again alleged that Sony engaged in unfair business acts or practices by selling, promoting, and recalling the television models at issue. The court had previously dismissed plaintiffs’ unfair business act claim because plaintiffs failed to allege a substantial consumer injury; in the new complaint plaintiffs again failed to allege that the televisions exhibited any problems during the one-year limited warranty period. Every alleged problem surfaced several years after purchase. Any alleged failure to disclose thus related to a defect that arose years after the express warranty expired. And any failure to disclose therefore could not constitute substantial injury.  Although plaintiffs did amend their complaint to include allegations that the televisions failed to operate properly from the outset, plaintiffs’ amendments did not cure the deficiencies of the prior complaint.  The fact remained that the defects did not become apparent to the plaintiff-consumers until after the warranty expired. Thus, the complaint still fell short of alleging that the defects caused the televisions to malfunction within the warranty period, as is required to allege a substantial consumer injury under California's consumer statutes. 

As a general rule, manufacturers cannot be liable under the CLRA for failures to disclose a
defect that manifests itself after the warranty period has expired.  A possible exception exists, however, if the manufacturer fails to disclose information and the omission is contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or the omission pertains to a fact the defendant was otherwise obligated to disclose. Here, all of plaintiffs alleged CLRA violations pertained to Sony’s alleged failures to disclose; the question therefore was whether Sony carried any obligation to disclose the alleged defect. The court noted that under the CLRA, a manufacturer’s duty to disclose information related to a defect that manifests itself after the expiration of an express warranty is limited to issues related to product safety.  Moreover, in order to have a duty to disclose, the manufacturer must be aware of the defect at the time that plaintiffs purchased, since a manufacturer has no duty to disclose facts of which it was unaware. In dismissing the prior complaint, the court held that plaintiffs failed to invoke the safety exception because the complaint was devoid of allegations that anyone or any property —other than the television itself— was damaged by the allegedly defective televisions.  

Even assuming plaintiffs’ allegations that the televisions pose a safety risk were sufficient to invoke the safety exception (fire hazard?), plaintiffs failed to allege that Sony was aware of this safety hazard at the time plaintiffs purchased the televisions.  First, plaintiffs alleged that Sony had known about it since 2008 and "possibly even earlier.”   Plaintiffs bought their televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006. So under plaintiffs’ own allegations, Sony may not have been aware of the alleged defect at the time plaintiffs made their purchases, or even within the respective one-year post-purchase warranty periods.  Second, all of plaintiffs' allegations regarding Sony’s knowledge of the alleged defect pertained to Sony’s knowledge that the defect caused excess heat that resulted in the deterioration of the television display, not that the defect posed any safety hazard. 

 The court thus dismissed the CLRA claims without prejudice. 

The court previously dismissed plaintiffs’ claim for breach of the express (limited warranty) because the alleged defects did not manifest until after the one-year warranty period expired. The general rule is that an express warranty does not cover repairs made after the applicable warranty period—here, one year after purchase—has elapsed.  None of the plaintiffs here sought repair or replacement of their televisions within the warranty period. None of the four named plaintiffs alleged that Sony either refused to repair any covered defects or refused to replace any televisions suffering from covered defects.

Plaintiffs’ implied warranty claims again failed because they were untimely. Subject to a sixty-day minimum and one-year maximum, implied warranties are equal in duration to corresponding express warranties under California law, said the court.  The implied warranty here was deemed to have a one-year duration to match that of the express warranty. And because Plaintiffs purchased the televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the implied warranties would have expired by 2007, at the latest. But the amended complaint did not contain allegations that the televisions failed to function as warranted or that plaintiffs sought warranty coverage during the one-year period following their respective purchases. Thus, these claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiffs continue to try to shoe horn claims into the consumer fraud matrix, thinking they will have an easier road to class certification.  That makes the court's scrutiny of the pleadings even more crucial.

 

Defect Allegations Insufficient in Drug Case

We may be accustomed to talking about whether a product was "defective" and, as counsel for defendant sellers, working hard to show that the product contained no "defect."  Earlier this month came a decision reminding us that, in some contexts, a defect, even one that caused the injury, may not be all plaintiffs need to allege and prove. Mills v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., No. 11-00968 (D. Ariz., 10/7/11).

Plaintiff was prescribed Clopidogrel (branded as "Plavix") for the treatment of peripheral vascular disease.  Two years later, plaintiff initiated this action alleging that the drug caused excessive rectal bleeding. The court dismissed, and plaintiff eventually sought leave to file a Second Amended Complaint. Defendants argued that leave to amend should be denied as futile.  And the court agreed.

The interesting part of the opinion for our readers is the discussion of strict products  liability, premised on two theories: design defect and failure to warn. (Plaintiff also premised her negligence claim on these theories.)  For plaintiff to prevail under both theories she had to show that the product left the defendants' hands in a defective condition, the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous, and the defect was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. Sw Pet Prods., Inc. v. Koch Indus., Inc., 273 F. Supp. 2d. 1041, 1051 (D. Ariz. 2003).

Plaintiff alleged that Plavix was allegedly defective when ingested along with aspirin by people who have peripheral vascular disease, and that the defect caused her injury.  So there you have it.   But wait... simply pleading a defect is not enough. To prevail on a design defect claim in Arizona, a plaintiff must also show that the defective product is unreasonably dangerous.  Although plaintiff's design defect claim was apparently pled pursuant to the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402(a), the federal court concluded that Arizona would now use the Restatement (Third) of Torts, particularly its definition of an unreasonably safe prescription drug or medical device in a design defect claim.  Section 6(c) of the Third Restatement, noted the court, declares that a prescription drug or medical device is unreasonably unsafe due to defective design only if the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the drug or medical device are sufficiently great in relation to its foreseeable therapeutic benefits that reasonable health-care providers, knowing of such foreseeable risks and therapeutic benefits, would not prescribe the drug or medical device for any class of patients.

Here, although plaintiff alleged that no reasonable health-care provider would prescribe Plavix
for plaintiff knowing of the alleged risks to Caucasian patients who genetically are poor metabolizers of Plavix, and who are diagnosed with peripheral vascular disease and concomitantly ingest aspirin, nowhere did the plaintiff allege that Plavix would not be prescribed for any class of patients. (We leave for a later post the interesting and scary theory that the drug was defective because it had greater adverse effects among a narrow group with a genetic pre-disposition.)

And arguably even under a traditional risk/benefit analysis used to determine whether a product is unreasonably dangerous based on the Restatement (Second) of Torts, plaintiff's pleading did not state a plausible claim.  Although detailed factual allegations are not necessary in pleadings, "labels and conclusions" are insufficient. Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  And that's what she offered on risk benefit elements.

As to the warning claim, plaintiff needed to allege, then show, that had a proper warning been given, the injury would not have happened. See Gosewisch v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 153 Ariz. 400, 403, 737 P.2d 376, 379 (1987) (superseded by statute on other grounds).  Here, plaintiff averred only on information and belief that her doctor would not have prescribed Plavix had he known of its true risks for patients like plaintiff.   But the court noted that plaintiff could simply have contacted her physician to determine the facts, which were not solely in the control of defendants. She did not do so, and her allegations thus fell short. This may be an important use of the clarified pleading standard, particularly in those jurisdictions in which defendants are precluded from informally contacting the plaintiff’s prescriber.  


 

Expert May Be Needed on Design Defect, Even Under Consumer Expectations Test

Back when we taught Products Liability in law school, one of the topics that always got significant attention and discussion from the bright-eyed students was how to define "defect." The panoply of tests for defective or unreasonably dangerous products never failed to excite discussion, particularly the role of consumer expectations in product assessment.

That same topic is the focus of an interesting recent decision in the Seventh Circuit. See Show v. Ford Motor Co., Nos. 10-2428 and 10-2637 (7th Cir.,  9/19/11).

Plaintiffs were involved in a motor vehicle accident in a 1993 Ford Explorer;  they sued Ford, alleging design defect. In products liability cases in which the plaintiff alleges a design defect, Illinois (whose law supplied the substantive rules) permits the claim to be established in either
of two ways. First, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would  expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. This has come to be known as the consumer expectation test. Second, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that the product’s design proximately caused his injury, when the benefits of the challenged design do not outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design. This test, which adds the balancing of risks and benefits to the alternative design and feasibility inquiries, has come to be known as the risk-utility or risk-benefit test.

Here, plaintiffs proceeded under the first prong, and offered no expert opinion. Ford moved for summary judgment in light of the absence of expert testimony. Plaintiffs conceded that testimony by an engineer or other design expert was essential when a claim rests on the risk-utility approach. But, they argued that jurors, as consumers, can find in their own experience all of the necessary opinions under the consumer expectation test. The district court sided with the defense, and plaintiffs appealed.

The court first discussed a very interesting preliminary question. The parties assumed, as did the lower court, that state law in this diversity case determined whether expert testimony was essential. The assumption rested on a belief that the quality of proof is part of the claim’s substantive elements, which in turn depend on state law under the Erie doctrine even when substantive doctrine is implemented through federal evidentiary rules.  However, there was a question whether Illinois treats the risk-utility and consumer expectations approaches as distinct substantive law doctrines, or merely as procedural aspects of the general question: is the product unreasonably dangerous. Perhaps the two tests are not theories of liability; they could be considered methods of proof by which a plaintiff may demonstrate that the element of unreasonable dangerousness is met.  If the consumer expectation test is not an independent theory of liability, perhaps federal rather than state law determines whether expert evidence is essential on it. Federal law often requires expert evidence about consumers' knowledge and behavior, because jurors are supposed to decide on the basis of the record rather than their own intuitions and assumptions. If federal courts require expert evidence, rather than relying solely on jurors' experience, in trademark and credit suits, for example, why not in product defect cases, asked the court?  But the court decided to bypass the question, in light of the parties' positions below. 

Turning to the consumer expectations issue, the court felt that plaintiffs’ argument that jurors should be able to rely on their own expectations as consumers reflected a belief that “expectations” are all that matters. Yet because the consumer expectations approach is just a means of getting at some of the issues that bear on the question whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, it is impossible to dispense with expert knowledge, concluded the panel.  The design defect is tied up in the issue of causation. Did the design decisions that went into the 1993 Ford Explorer even contribute to the rollover? Causation is a question about physics, and design options are the province of engineers. Jurors own cars, but people own lots of products without being able to explain (or even understand) the principles behind their construction and operation.  Unguided intuitions will not solve the equations. Without an expert’s assistance the decision would depend on speculation, which cannot establish causation—an issue on which plaintiffs bear both the burden of production and the risk of non-persuasion.

Because consumer expectations are just one factor in the inquiry whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, a jury unassisted by expert testimony would have to rely on speculation. The record here did not show whether 1993 Explorers were unduly (or unexpectedly) dangerous, because the record (absent an expert) lacked evidence about many issues, such as: (a) under what circumstances they roll over; (b) under what circumstances consumers expect them to do so whether it would be possible to reduce the rollover rate; and (d) whether a different and safer design would have averted this particular accident. All of these are subjects on which plaintiffs bear the burden of proof. There are other issues too, such as whether the precautions needed to curtail the rate of rollovers would be cost-justified.

The absence of expert evidence on these subjects was fatal to plaintiffs’ suit.

 

State Court Upholds Questionable Bystander Liability Claim

The Montana Supreme Court recently upheld the imposition of liability on a bat manufacturer for allegedly failing to warn about the dangers of aluminum bats. Patch v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., d/b/a Louisville Slugger, No. DA 10-0051 (Mont. 7/21/11).  Bad facts made bad law here. 

Many people consider "The Natural" to be one of the greatest sports movies of all time, and those that think deep thoughts have asserted that the screenplay  (presumably not the 1952 book too?) was based in part on the story of Sir Percival from the Arthurian myths, with the broken bat "Wonderboy" taking the part of the knight's broken sword.  Had Roy Hobbs used an aluminum bat, that aspect of the story would have been lost. Since their introduction in the early 1970's, aluminum bats have become quite popular in youth and amateur adult baseball and softball markets. The new bats are often touted as having a wider sweet spot, more power, better feel, or higher performance. It is pretty much accepted that balls come off metal bats faster than they do from wood bats, but this aspect of performance has fueled an ongoing metal/wood issue in some circles.

While pitching in an American Legion baseball game on July 25, 2003, the eighteen year-old plaintiff was struck in the head by a batted ball that was hit using H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bat. Tragically, plaintiff died from his injuries. In 2006, Brandon’s parents sued H&B, claiming H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bat was in a defective condition because of the alleged enhanced risks associated with its use: It increased the velocity speed of a batted ball when it left the bat, thus decreasing infielders’ reaction times, which allegedly resulted in a greater number of high energy batted balls in the infield.

The matter was tried in October, 2009, and the design defect and failure to warn claims were submitted to the jury, which concluded that the model CB-13 aluminum bat was not designed defectively, but determined the bat was in a defective condition due to H&B’s failure to warn of the enhanced risks associated with its use. They awarded plaintiffs an $850,000 verdict on their failure to warn claim. Defendant appealed.

The key issue was whether a failure to warn claim can be brought by a bystander -- plaintiff was not the consumer nor the user. H&B asserted that only the individual batting (actual user) and the individual who purchased the bat (actual consumer) could assert a failure to warn claim.  The court disagreed, saying this interpretation of the terms user and consumer is somehow contrary to the definition of the terms as contained in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A. This state court’s products liability jurisprudence had recognized that a failure to warn claim may be brought by some persons who are not actual purchasers or users of a product; previous plaintiffs included those who are passively enjoying the benefit of the product, as in the case of passengers in automobiles or airplanes, as well as those who are utilizing it for the purpose of doing work upon it.  "The realities of the game of baseball" supported, said the court, the decision to submit the failure to warn claim to the jury. The bat was deemed an indispensable part of the game. The risk of harm accompanying the bat’s use extends beyond the user, beyond a player who holds the bat in his or her hands. A warning of the bat’s risks to only the batter standing at the plate inadequately communicates the potential risk of harm posed by the bat’s increased exit speed, concluded the court. In this context, all of the players, including plaintiff, were deemed "users or consumers" placed at risk by the increased exit speed caused by H&B’s bat.

Defendant also argued that plaintiff could not establish causation - reading and heeding the warning. The court held that H&B’s argument erroneously assumed that placing a warning directly on the bat is the only method to provide a warning. While placing a warning directly on a product is certainly one method of warning, other methods of warning exist, including, but not limited to, issuing oral warnings and placing warnings in advertisements, posters, and media releases. Davis v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., 399 F.2d 121, 131 (9th Cir. 1968) (“[O]ther means of communication such as advertisements, posters, releases to be read and signed . . . or oral warnings . . . could easily have been undertaken . . . .”). Such warnings, if issued by H&B in this case, said the court, could have communicated to all players the potential risk of harm associated with H&B’s bat’s alleged increased exit speed.

What the court here called a "flexible" approach to causation really eviscerates one of the fundamental elements of the claim. The court allowed the jury to infer without any basis in fact that plaintiff would have heeded a warning had one been given-- apparently because he was deceased, and thus real proof of causation was hard to find. There is no basis to allow a jury simply to express sympathy for a tragic accident victim,as here there was not sufficient proof that the plaintiff would have adjusted his behavior after receiving the warning to avoid the injury. The decision puts this court in a tiny minority of states that recognize some kind of bystander failure to warn liability, which most courts agree is unworkable and contrary to the reality of modern commerce.

The concurrence correctly noted that plaintiff did not articulate specifically what a warning should have contained and what message should have been given. Statements to the effect that the bat would hit balls at unusually fast speeds or unusually far distances are the kind of messages accompanying usual product advertising and are not likely to change a player's/plaintiff's behavior. Moreover, they are precisely the qualities in a bat which baseball teams and players seek out. Plaintiff could not articulate specifically how a warning would have changed the result here, in other words, how the failure to warn caused this accident.

H&B also argued that because plaintiff had been hit by batted balls before, he knew he could be hit and, therefore, assumed the risk when he continued playing baseball. The court explained that assumption of the risk defense in this state is inapplicable as a matter of law without evidence the victim actually knew he or she would suffer serious injury or death, and, knowing that, the victim voluntarily exposed himself or herself to the danger. Lutz v. Natl. Crane Corp., 267 Mont. 368, 379-80, 884 P.2d 455, 461-62 (1994). What the victim actually knew is evaluated using a subjective standard in Montana. Here, said the court, there was no evidence that plaintiff actually knew he would be seriously injured or killed when pitching to a batter using one of H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bats. He knew he could be hit with a screaming line drive, but not that it could injure him seriously?

Plaintiff's apparent theory, as articulated in closing argument, was that H&B should have
advertised that its bat “could kill.” And the inference which plaintiff asked the jury to draw in order to establish causation was that, following the publishing of a warning “that this bat could kill,” the parents would have prohibited Brandon from playing baseball.  That tells you how unworkable the theory is. This was a terrible accident on a baseball field, the kind of accident that has also occurred with wood bats. The bat was not defective. It was made in accordance with the rules approved for play by baseball's organizing and governing bodies. Bad facts again make bad law.
 


 

Court of Appeals Explores Obvious Danger Doctrine

The 5th Circuit last week affirmed a grant of summary judgment to defendants in a case of a plaintiff allegedly injured when he used a gasoline-soaked rag to start a diesel engine while wearing a polyester and cotton uniform. Spears v. Cintas Sales Corp., No. 09-30750 (5th Cir., 2/28/11).

At the time of his accident, Spears was employed as the shop foreman for Apeck Construction, Inc., and was the head mechanic in charge of servicing and repairing equipment used by Apeck in its business. While performing his duties, Spears wore a Cintas uniform that Apeck had purchased for him. The uniform was 65% polyester and 35% cotton.The agreement between Apeck and Cintas specified that the garments were not flame-retardant, and the employer promised to tell its employees that their garments are not designed for use in areas of flammability risk or where contact with hazardous materials is possible.

Spears was injured while attempting to start a dump truck powered by a diesel engine.  Spears used a gasoline-soaked rag, a procedure he had used “thousands of times” to attempt to start an engine.The dump truck backfired, and Spears’s uniform caught on fire. As the uniform burned, it melted and fused to his body.

Spears filed suit in state court under the Louisiana Product Liability Act, alleging that the Cintas
uniform was an unreasonably dangerous product. Cintas moved for summary judgment, arguing that Spears could not present sufficient evidence to prove two elements of his claim: (1) that his damages were proximately caused by a characteristic of the Cintas uniform that rendered it unreasonably dangerous; and (2) that the damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the uniform. The district court found that Spears’s use of the uniform was not a reasonably anticipated use and granted summary judgment in favor of Cintas. Plaintiff appealed.

Under the LPLA, a manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product. If a plaintiff’s damages did not arise from a reasonably anticipated use of the product, then the unreasonably dangerous question need not even be reached. Reasonably anticipated use means a use or handling of a product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. The court said  this is an objective inquiry that requires a court to ascertain what uses of its product the manufacturer should have reasonably expected at the time of manufacture.

A plaintiff’s use of a product is not reasonably anticipated in a situation where a manufacturer provides an express warning cautioning against a use of the product for which the product was neither designed nor intended, and where the plaintiff acts in direct contravention of that warning. Even if the warning did not reach the users, if the danger from a particular use of a product is obvious, then it is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA. If the plaintiff acts in contravention of an express warning, the plaintiff’s use may still be reasonably anticipated if the plaintiff presents evidence that despite the warnings, the manufacturer should have been aware that users were using the product in contravention of the warnings.

Cintas did not dispute that the warning did not reach Spears. Instead, Cintas argued that Spears’s use was not a reasonably anticipated use because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears. The record demonstrated that Spears knew that his uniform was not flame retardant. Furthermore, Spears’s testimony established that Spears knew that his poly-cotton uniform would melt.  Because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears, his use of the uniform is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA.

Plaintiff spent considerable effort arguing about the foreseeability of the danger involved in starting the engine with a gasoline-soaked rag. But the 5th Circuit said that was the wrong issue; it may be relevant in assessing a plaintiff’s comparative negligence, but it was not relevant to whether Spears’s use of the uniform was a reasonably anticipated use. The correct obvious-danger analysis in this case related to what Spears argues that Cintas should have warned against—that the uniform would melt when exposed to flame -- whatever the source. Furthermore, the court pointed out, Spears’s argument that he did not know the engine would backfire was contradicted by his other argument that Cintas should have reasonably anticipated that he would be exposed to flammability risks while wearing his uniform. If Spears, an expert mechanic, supposedly did not know that there was a risk that the engine would backfire when he attempted to start it, Cintas could not reasonably anticipate that its uniform would be exposed to the backfire of a diesel engine.

 

Claim Against Starbucks For Hot Tea Rejected

A federal appeals court has upheld the exclusion of plaintiffs' experts in a design defect case alleging Starbucks Coffee Co.'s tea/coffee cup design caused severe burns to an elderly customer. See Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co., No. 09-4943 (2d Cir. 11/2/10).

Plaintiff alleged she purchased a venti-sized cup of tea, served double-cupped and lidded. She had difficulty removing the lid, and in the course of her attempts to pry it off, she alleged that the tea spilled onto her left leg, causing severe burns.

In support of her design defect claim, she presented the reports of four experts. The District Court for the Southern District of New York excluded the experts under Daubert and granted the coffee maker summary judgment.

The Second Circuit unanimously agreed that proof from Moltner's these design defect experts failed to meet the standards of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.  As the district court discussed, and the court of appeals affirmed, the first (Diller) report was unreliable because its conclusions were conclusory, devoid of any factual or analytical basis, and this report thus did not demonstrate a sufficient level of intellectual rigor. The second (Dr. Gerstman) report likewise was unreliable because it does not state the basis or analysis from which its conclusions were derived.  Third, the (Anders) report was the product of a method of testing that was insufficiently reliable and lacked “the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” The report by a fourth expert (DiMaria), which supported Moltner's negligence claim, was properly barred because it would not assist the jury in determining whether Starbucks breached its duty of care to the plaintiff.

We note this decision not so much for the Daubert analysis (which is not lengthy), but because it strikes us as another good example of what is wrong with so much product liability litigation today.  An elderly woman with serious injury is a sympathetic plaintiff in front of a jury.  But such a case should never get to a jury. The panel also rejected Moltner’s theory of negligence as infirm as a matter of law under Fung-Yee Ng v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 764 N.Y.S.2d 183, 183-84 (1st Dep’t 2003) (“‘Double cupping’ is a method well known in the industry as a way of preventing a cup of hot tea from burning one’s hand.”).  Products are not defective just because they are capable of being involved in an injury.  Products need not be designed to prevent any injury no matter what the consumer does with the product.   Almost every design choice, including something as simple as double cupping, may have potential impact on the relative risks of injury.   A proper negligence analysis supports the decision to minimize the risk of injuries, yet juries are often incapable of confirming that analysis when confronted with a sympathetic plaintiff.  And while they should, juries confronted with a seriously injured plaintiff may find it difficult to recognize the proper role of personal responsibility in cases like this: regardless of the design of the cup or lid, when you are dealing with a very hot beverage, you must exercise precaution; it's a matter of common sense, common knowledge, common awareness. Hence the need for rules keeping out junk science and the need for courts to grant summary judgment. 


 

Game Over for Plaintiffs in Wii Class Action

A federal court last week granted defendant's summary judgment motion in a putative class action alleging Nintendo of America Inc. sold defective wrist straps with its Wii controllers.  Elvig, et al. v. Nintendo of America Inc., No. 08-cv-02616 (D. Colo.)

Readers are familiar with the Wii game system. The Wii employs a motion sensing controller that allows the player to manipulate the on-screen action by performing imitative physical actions, such as swinging the controller like a tennis racquet to control the onscreen action in a tennis game. (Readers may recall the classic product liability issues over various lawn dart games; with Wii you can play them in your family room.) To ensure that controllers do not leave a player’s hand during vigorous physical activity, Nintendo includes a “safety strap” to be worn around the player’s wrist. The strap, in turn, connects to the controller by means of a “string sling.” 

Plaintiff sued, alleging the strap was defective, broke, and caused damage to her television. She alleged violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act (“CCPA”), of the Colorado Product Liability Act, and a breach of implied warranty or merchantability and of fitness for a particular purpose. To establish a claim under the CCPA, a plaintiff must show: (i) that the defendant engaged in one of several categories of unfair or deceptive trade practices; (ii) the practice occurred in the course of the defendants business or trade; (iii) the practice significantly impacts the public as actual or potential consumers of the defendant’s goods or services; (iv) the plaintiff suffered an injury; and (v) the challenged practice caused the injury. Nintendo argued that Ms. Elvig could not establish the first and last elements – i.e. a deceptive practice and causation of injury.  The court found that plaintiff's vague reference to “false advertising” that “touts the Wii’s athletic usages while making no mention of the straps’ propensity to break” was inadequate in detail and content to make out such a claim.  Plaintiff lacked specifics about what the advertising actually said.

On the product liability claim, Nintendo contended that it gave players adequate warnings of the need to retain possession of the controller and advised them of the possibility that release of the controller during vigorous motion could result in breakage of the strap and damage to persons or property. The court noted the evidence that Nintendo did advise players, via a safety card included with the Wii system, that “If you use excessive motion and let go of the Wii Remote, the wrist strap may break and you could lose control of the Wii Remote. This could injure people nearby or cause damage to other objects.” This, coupled with repeated instructions on the safety card that advise players “DO NOT LET GO OF THE REMOTE DURING GAME PLAY,” ensure that, if the player follows Nintendo’s instructions and heeds its warnings, the Wii system does not pose an unreasonable danger. Ms. Elvig did not dispute that such instructions were included with the Wii she received. Nintendo thus having given an adequate warning to users, it may “reasonably assume that it will be read and heeded,” and thus, has ensured that the product was not “unreasonably dangerous” under the Second Restatement, § 402A, comment j. An interesting take on the relationship of warning and design issues.

On the implied warranty of merchantability, the court cited the lack of evidence that would indicate what the intended purpose of the strap was. One might plausibly assume, as plaintiff did, that the strap was intended to prevent a controller, inadvertently released by the player during vigorous activity, from hurling towards the player’s television (or towards another player) and causing damage.  But equally, one might assume that the strap was simply intended to keep an
inadvertently released controller in the vicinity of the player so that it could be easily retrieved and was was never intended to withstand the forces of high-speed controller release. To withstand summary judgment, plaintiff needed more than one of alternate plausible assumptions; she needed evidence of the ordinary purpose of the strap and proof that it failed the ordinary purpose.

Finally, the court noted that a “particular purpose” differs from the ordinary purpose for which the goods are to be used; in other words, a buyer obtaining goods for a “particular purpose” is one who, for reasons peculiar to the buyer, is obtaining the goods for use other than that which is customarily made of the goods.  Here, there was no evidence that Ms. Elvig obtained the Wii for a “particular purpose” other than that for which it would customarily be used.  The damages occurred when the plaintiff was allegedly playing the Wii bowling game  (no bowling shoes required)-- in the manner and fashion represented by Nintendo in its marketing and promotion materials. In short, using the Wii for its “ordinary purpose” at the time of the accident, not for some “particular” – e.g. unusual – purpose.

Hence, summary judgment for defendant on all claims.

 

State Appeals Court Orders New Trial Based on Error Admitting "Similar Incidents"

In product litigation over a plane crash, a  Florida appeals court has ordered a new trial because of the improper admission of evidence of "similar incidents." Godfrey v. Precision Airmotive Corp., No. 5D07-4389 (Fla. 5th Dist. Ct. App., 9/10/10).

Plaintiffs' suit alleged that the airplane they were in crashed as the result of a faulty Precision Airmotive Co. MA-3SPA carburetor.  Plaintiffs were the  flight instructor and student, flying a 1973 Cessna 150.  Its engine had been overhauled three times. The most recent overhaul included installation of a new carburetor a few months before the accident.  Plaintiffs alleged design and manufacturing defects that allegedly either allowed fuel to leak or allowed too much fuel into the carburetor. A jury had awarded approximately $55 million. 

Defendants sought a new trial, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of other supposedly similar incidents at trial. The trial court agreed in post-trial motions, and both sides appealed. Readers know that such evidence is often used to attempt to prove that the defendant was on notice of the risk or hazard, and/or that the defect was the factual cause of the accident.  Here, the documents were purportedly offered solely to show that defendant was on notice of the carburetor defect that allegedly caused its engine to fail. Generally, in this context, evidence of the occurrence or non-occurrence of prior accidents is admissible only if it pertains to the use of the same type of appliance or equipment under substantially similar conditions. Florida law, as is typical, places the burden on the proponent of this type of evidence to demonstrate "substantial similarity" before the evidence can be admitted.

The problem here was that most of the "similar" incidents involved a different, larger aircraft engine built by a competing manufacturer and using a different carburetor than the one defendant Teledyne certified for use with the engine at issue in this case. Basically, the plaintiffs relied upon testimony from one of their experts, who opined that the engine at issue in this case was similar to the other engines, and offered a long list of carburetors that he opined to be similar in that they all share the defects alleged to exist in the carburetor that allegedly contributed to the engine failure in this case.

The DCA agreed with defendant Teledyne that the trial court committed reversible error by allowing the plaintiffs to introduce this evidence of more than 100 problem occurrences involving other aircraft engines without a sufficient showing that the other incidents were caused by defects substantially similar to the defect that the plaintiffs alleged. 

The different engines was not a trivial factor.  But even if all of the accidents had involved the same Teledyne engine, that showing, alone, would not have been sufficient to secure admission of evidence regarding all of the other accidents. For example, said the court, one of the effects of the defects alleged by the plaintiffs was a build-up of carbon in the engine exhaust valve that can
interfere with the engine's operation and, ultimately, cause the engine to fail. But the plaintiffs' expert conceded that, among other things, failing to change the engine oil when specified can cause this exact same condition. Since all that was known about some of the supposedly similar accidents is that they involved engines with carbon build-up, it was impossible to say they were similar -- because there was no way of knowing whether the build-up was caused by the same condition alleged as a defect in this case. Any accident caused by a failure to change an engine's oil when required would not have put Teledyne on notice of the defects alleged in this case.

Given the volume of other accident evidence introduced in this case without a sufficient similarity showing, the court of appeals could not conclude that the error in admitting this evidence was harmless. Accordingly, a new trial was indeed warranted.

Interestingly, the dissent suggested that a different (easier) standard should apply when plaintiffs are trying to show the defendant was on notice, as opposed to trying to prove the existence of a dangerous condition or other usage of similar accidents.   

Failure to Warn Claim Survives- But Why?

Sometimes, manufacturers have to wonder, what good does a warning do if the courts won't require people to read and heed the warning given?

Harley Davidson is an iconic American product manufacturer. In 1903, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson made available to the public the first production Harley-Davidson® motorcycle. The bike was built to be a racer, with a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke. The factory in which they worked was a 10 x 15-foot wooden shed with the words "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" crudely scrawled on the door.

William and Arthur would likely be scratching their heads over a recent ruling denying the company's summary judgment motion on a failure-to-warn claim in a suit filed after a motorcycle crash. Steven Morris v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., et al., No. 3:09-cv-74 (M.D. Ga.).

Plaintiff alleged that the rear tire of his motorcycle failed, resulting in a crash that killed plaintiff’s wife and left plaintiff seriously injured. Plaintiff contended that the defendants (including the tire company) failed to provide an adequate warning regarding the dangers of overloading the motorcycle. With a full tank of gas weighing 31 pounds, the plaintiff's Ultra Classic’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) allowed for an additional 420 pounds of weight capacity for the rider, any passenger, cargo, and accessories. Plaintiff, who weighed 250 pounds, was with his wife, who weighed 204 pounds, riding as a rear passenger. Plaintiff was also pulling a trailer.

When plaintiff purchased the Ultra Classic, he was provided with an owner’s manual, which contained warnings and instructions regarding the Ultra Classic. Specifically, the Owner’s Manual warned against exceeding the GVWR; that exceeding these weight ratings can affect stability and handling, which could result in death or serious injury; explaining that GVWR is the sum of the weight of the motorcycle, accessories, and the maximum weight of the rider, passenger and cargo that can be safely carried.  It tells the owner that the GVWR is shown on the information plate located on the frame steering head.

The court found it significant that the weight of the trailer was not listed in the components of the GVWR, but that was because the Owner’s Manual also warned against pulling a trailer, ever: “Do not pull a trailer with a motorcycle. Pulling a trailer can cause tire overload, reduced braking efficiency and adversely affect stability and handling, which could result in death or serious injury.”  That is exactly what happened, according to plaintiff!

Plaintiff admitted he never read the Owner’s Manual. But in addition to the warnings in the Owner’s Manual, there were also warnings on the Ultra Classic. One warning was located inside the storage compartment on the back end of the Ultra Classic, over the rear wheel, and behind the passenger’s seat, and the Ultra Classic also contained an information plate on the steering head, which listed the Ultra Classic’s GVWR, recommended tire pressures, and other information.  Plaintiff testified that he did not see these warnings either.

Harley-Davidson contended that plaintiff’s failure to warn claim failed as a matter of law because he did not read the warnings in the Owner’s Manual or the warnings on the Ultra Classic.  The court construed  the claim as not relating to the substance of the warning, but the procedure, the method by which the information was communicated.  The court concluded that plaintiff contended that he never read the warnings because Harley-Davidson failed to communicate them adequately. Failure to read a warning does not bar recovery when the plaintiff is challenging the adequacy of the efforts of the manufacturer or seller to communicate the dangers of the product to the buyer or user, found the court.

Failure to communicate an adequate warning involves such procedural questions as location and presentation of the warning. The court found that it was a jury question whether or not the manufacturer was negligent in failing to place a warning in such position, color and size print or to use symbols that would adequately convey the information. Thus, based on the present record, said the court, a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Harley-Davidson failed to place useful load information regarding the Ultra Classic where a user would likely see it.

But, even accepting the substance/procedure distinction, the only evidence the court focused on concerning the alleged inadequacy of the warnings was plaintiff's self-serving testimony. A plaintiff should not be able to create an issue of fact on the procedural aspects of the warning simply by saying, "I didn't see it, so it must have been inadequate." Where was the genuine issue of fact?  Where was the proof that the vehicle's Owner's Manual is not the right place to put a warning about safe operation of the vehicle.    Bottom line - there can be no genuine issue of fact when an admittedly adequate warning is placed in the Owner's Manual and the owner never opens the manual. Where is the genuine dispute about warnings right on the motorcycle itself? Where was the proof of where else the manufacturer was supposed to put a warning?

 

Summer Reading for the Rest of Us

Today is the official first day of Summer, and in that spirit, as our readers think about reading something fun (not that MassTortDefense is not fun) at the beach, lake, or pool, here is a suggestion.

New York Times bestselling author James W. Huston's novel, "Marine One" is out in paperback (St. Martin's Press). Huston is a practicing attorney in his spare time.

Finally, some reality to the legal thriller genre, as the hero of the story -- the good guy -- is a product liability defense lawyer!  Mike Nolan is retained to defend WorldCopter in a billion dollar civil lawsuit alleging a product defect caused Marine One (the President's helicopter) to crash on the way to Camp David, killing all aboard.

Was it an accident? pilot error? act of God? terrorists? a design or manufacturing defect? Our plucky defense counsel battles grandstanding Senators, a conspiracy-minded media, voracious plaintiff personal injury attorneys, and a seemingly "fixed" government investigation to try to get to the truth, and justice for his client, the besieged product seller.

For fans of Higgins and Clancy, with a twist on Grisham, a fun summer read.

State Supreme Court Overturns Verdict In Sudden Acceleration Case

A recent state supreme court decision offers an interesting take on the use of experts in product liability cases. Watson v. Ford Motor Company , No. 26786 (S.C. March 15, 2010).

Plaintiffs filed a products liability suit against Ford, alleging that the cruise control system on the accident vehicle was defective and the cause of a serious accident. Watson testified that when she entered the interstate, she promptly set the cruise control, but shortly thereafter, the vehicle began to suddenly accelerate. Watson testified that she pumped her brakes to no avail before crashing. Plaintiff's theory of the case was that the vehicle's cruise control system was defective because it allowed electromagnetic interference (EMI) to affect the system. To support this theory, they presented Dr. Antony Anderson, an electrical engineer, who testified as to his theory that EMI can interfere with the speed control component of a cruise control system and cause a vehicle to suddenly and uncontrollably accelerate. Dr. Anderson further opined that this was the cause of the accident, and that Ford could have employed a feasible alternative design to prevent EMI.  Plaintiffs also presented testimony from Bill Williams who was qualified as an expert on “cruise control diagnosis.”

The jury found Ford liable on the cruise control products liability claim, and awarded compensatory damages of $15 million to Watson and $3 million to the estate of passenger Patricia Carter.

The appeal presented three issues: did the trial court err in qualifying Bill Williams as an expert in cruise control systems; did the trial court err in allowing Dr. Anderson’s expert testimony regarding EMI and alternative feasible design; did the trial court err in allowing evidence of other incidents of alleged sudden acceleration in Explorers?

On question one, the court found error. Williams testified that he had worked in the automotive industry since the early 1980s and was currently conducting seminars to train automobile technicians who focus on the brake systems in vehicles. While Williams may have been qualified as an expert in other aspects of automobile components, such as the brake system, the trial court failed to properly evaluate Williams’ qualifications specific to cruise control systems. Notwithstanding this error, the court did not believe that this error alone prejudiced Ford’s defense. Williams’ testimony essentially consisted of a description of the system accompanied by models and diagrams of the components. Furthermore, the trial court prohibited Williams from testifying to matters outside of his scope, specifically noting he could not testify as to electrical engineering matters.

On the second issue, the court addressed an issue that reflected the lack of fit between the opinion and the witness' qualifications in the particular area of expertise. Beyond that, Ford claimed that Dr. Anderson's theory regarding EMI as the cause of the sudden acceleration failed to meet the reliability requirements for the admission of expert testimony. The court reiterated several factors that the trial court should consider when determining whether scientific expert evidence is reliable:(1) the publications and peer review of the technique; (2) prior application of the method to the type of evidence involved in the case; (3) the quality control procedures used to ensure reliability; and (4) the consistency of the method with recognized scientific laws and procedures.

Dr. Anderson’s background involved working with massive generators which have entirely different electrical wiring systems and different voltage levels. He had no experience in the automobile industry, never studied a cruise control system, and never designed any component of a cruise control system. Dr. Anderson had not even operated an automobile with a cruise control system before this litigation; yet, he offered testimony regarding EMI and its effect on the cruise control system.  While he was an expert, perhaps not in the area he opined about.

Even assuming Dr. Anderson was properly qualified as an expert in this area, his testimony was found not reliable. Dr. Anderson declared that the alternative design (twisted pair wiring) would have prevented EMI but did not explain how twisted pair wiring could be incorporated in to a cruise control system and did not offer any model comparison. Furthermore, Dr. Anderson concluded that this design was economically feasible, but offered no basis to support this conclusion.

Dr. Anderson admitted that his theory had not been peer reviewed, he had never published papers on his theory, and he had never tested his theory. He also admitted that he would not be able to determine exactly where the EMI (which he opined caused the cruise control to malfunction) originated or what part of the system it affected. He further testified that it would not be possible to replicate the alleged EMI malfunction of a cruise control system in a testing environment.

The court concluded that there was no evidence indicating that Dr. Anderson’s testimony contained "any indicia of reliability." He had never published articles on his theory nor had he tested his theory. Importantly, Dr. Anderson admitted that it was not possible to test for EMI. Furthermore, although it is not a prerequisite in South Carolina that scientific evidence attain general acceptance in the scientific community before it is admitted, the court found it instructive that not only had the underlying science not been generally accepted, Dr. Anderson’s theory was rejected in the scientific community.  Next, the court found that Ford was prejudiced by the admission of this testimony. Indeed, the only evidence plaintiffs presented to support their theory that the vehicle was defective was Dr. Anderson’s testimony.

On the third issue, evidence of similar accidents, transactions, or happenings is admissible in South Carolina where there is some special relation between the accidents tending to prove or disprove some fact in dispute. Typically, a plaintiff must present a factual foundation for the court to determine that the other accidents were substantially similar to the accident at issue. The court will look at whether (1) the products are similar; (2) the alleged defect is similar; (3) causation related to the defect in the other incidents; and (4) exclusion of all reasonable secondary explanations for the cause of the other incidents.

Here, plaintiffs failed to show that the incidents were substantially similar and failed to establish a special relation between the other incidents and the relevant accident. The other incidents involved Explorers that were made in different years and were completely different models with the driver’s seat located on the right side of the vehicle. More importantly, plaintiffs failed to show a similarity of causation between the malfunction in this case and the malfunction in the other incidents. Plaintiffs presented only the testimony of the other drivers and did not present any expert evidence to show that EMI was a factor in the malfunction in the other incidents.

This evidence was highly prejudicial. Courts require a plaintiff to establish a factual foundation to show substantial similarity because evidence of similar incidents may be extremely prejudicial. Plaintiffs' counsel highlighted this improper evidence in closing arguments and thereby possibly induced the jury to speculate as to other causes of the accident not supported by any evidence.

Seventh Circuit Affirms Exclusion of Plaintiff Expert in Device Case

Just about a year ago, we posted about an interesting device case in which the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, in an opinion by Chief Judge Michael P. McCuskey, found inadmissible plaintiff's expert witness testimony that his knee implant failed due to alleged oxidation caused by the method Zimmer used to sterilize the product. Fuesting v. Zimmer Inc., 2009 WL 174163 (C.D. Ill., 1/26/09).

Last week  the federal appeals court affirmed the judgment for the knee implant maker.  Fuesting v. Zimmer Inc., 2010 WL 271728 (7th Cir. 1/25/10).  Fuesting had alleged he received the Zimmer-made implant in 1994. In 2001, he began experiencing pain in the knee, and his doctor removed the prosthesis in November of that year. Fuesting sued, alleging that Zimmer's sterilization of the prosthesis by gamma irradiation in air (GIA) rendered it defective. At trial, his expert witness, Dr. Pugh, testified that GIA caused the prosthesis to oxidize and delaminate, resulting in premature failure. A jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, but the Seventh Circuit vacated the judgment after finding that Pugh's testimony did not meet the requirements for admissibility of expert testimony under Fed. R. Evid. 702 and the standards set forth in Daubert.

On remand, Fuesting proffered the testimony of a second expert witness, Dr. Rose. But the trial court found that Dr. Rose had not bridged the analytical gap between accepted principles and his complex conclusions. He had not, and could not, show that the prosthesis failed because of the sterilization method used. The expert testimony as to defect also failed.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit stated that Dr. Rose's testimony did not show that his theory that these knee implants oxidize “in vivo” had sufficient acceptance in the scientific community.  He failed to point to any peer reviewed studies that discuss the oxidation rates of this type of implant in vivo.  Dr. Rose failed to cite any articles or studies that he or any one else conducted regarding how one can discern whether the alleged oxidation occurred before or after implantation.  Dr. Rose also did not rule out possible alternative methods of causation.  Nor did he explain how the device's oxidation caused the device to fail, as the mere presence of oxidation does not prove that the oxidation caused the device to malfunction.

Dr. Rose also failed to “bridge the analytical gap” between the accepted fact that GIA sterilization causes at least some amount of oxidation and his ultimate conclusion that Fuesting's knee implant in particular failed because GIA, rather than another sterilization method, was used. Last, Dr. Rose failed to show that better sterilization alternatives existed in 1991. He concluded, in one sentence of his report, and without any support, that the industry standard was to sterilize implants in an inert gas instead of air. In fact, no manufacturer at that time employed any of  the proffered methods, and Dr. Rose cited no contemporary articles counseling the use of such methods.  For all these reasons, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding Dr. Rose's testimony.


 

State Supreme Court Reverses Itself on Economic Loss Doctrine

Not long ago we blogged about the economic loss rule, noting that the doctrine had some variants among the states.  Recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court pulled back on an exception to the economic loss rule, concluding that its 2008 opinion expanding the ability to recover in tort for purely economic damages had been wrongly decided. Sapp v. Ford Motor Co., 2009 WL 4893648 (S.C., 12/21/09). Very refreshing to see a court recognize an issue quickly, and act promptly to correct the error.

Economic loss generally refers to damages that occur through the loss of the value or use of the goods sold or the cost of repair, when there has been no claim of personal injury or damage to property other than the product. The economic loss doctrine has held that such damages, a product injuring itself in essence, is a claim about a breach of the commercial relationship, and thus must be brought in contract/warranty, and not a tort claim sounding in negligence or strict liability. Most states have adopted some form of the economic loss rule, although with some variation in detail. Some carve out exceptions, and in South Carolina there has long been an exception for economic damage to a residence. The reasoning was that a home is often an individual's largest investment and different in kind from other manufactured goods. The courts also looked at the unequal bargaining power between builders and home purchasers.

But in Colleton Preparatory Academy Inc. v. Hoover Universal Inc., 379 S.C. 181, 666 S.E.2d 247 (S.C. 2008), the court seemed to expand the exception even farther, into commercial property.  In Colleton Prep, which concerned allegedly defective materials used in constructing a school building, the state court held that a tort suit could go forward even where only the product itself is damaged, if there is also a clear, serious and unreasonable risk of injury or death, as was the case in a school. The defense bar termed this a very surprising opinion, because it extended the seemingly narrow exception so far that it threatened to swallow the rule, appearing to create tort liability for mere potential harm or risk.

In Sapp, actually two cases consolidated for appeal, plaintiffs sued over allegedly defective cruise-control systems on Ford Motor Co. F-150 trucks, which allegedly caused fires. The lower courts dismissed the claims, saying that under the economic loss doctrine, tort recovery was not available because the damage was only to the allegedly defective products themselves. At oral argument on plaintiffs' appeal, they argued the new expanded exception, suggesting the truck fire created that clear and serious risk of injury. 

The supreme court seemed to recognize the problems it had created. The court recognized that
the exception for residences was a very narrow one.  And the court clarified it  no intention of the exception extending beyond residential real estate construction and into commercial real estate construction. "Such a progression was in error and we now correct that expansion. Much less did we intend the exception to the economic loss rule to be applied well beyond the scope of real estate construction in an ordinary products liability claim.” Accordingly, the court overruled Colleton Prep to the extent it could be read to expand the narrow exception to the economic loss rule beyond the residential builder context.

In South Carolina, as in many states, the purpose of the economic loss rule is to define the line between recovery in tort and recovery in contract. In the context of products liability law, when a defective product only damages itself, the only concrete and measurable damages are the diminution in the value of the product, cost of repair, and consequential damages resulting from the product's failure. Stated differently, the consumer has only suffered an economic loss. When only damage is to the product itself, what has happened is the consumer's expectations have not been met, and he has lost the benefit of the bargain. Accordingly, where a product damages only itself, tort law provides no remedy and the action lies in contract; but when personal injury or other property damage occurs, a tort remedy may be appropriate.  The traditional economic loss rule provides a more stable framework and results in a more just and predictable outcome in product liability cases.

Summary Judgment In ABS Case on Causation: Try, Try Again Doesn't Work

A federal court has dismissed a case against Ford Motor Co. brought on behalf of a minor who was severely hurt when she was struck by a Ford pickup truck while riding her bike.  The court concluded that plaintiff offered insufficient evidence that the alleged defect in the truck (absence of front-wheel anti-lock brakes) caused the accident and thus the ensuing injuries. BancFirst v. Ford Motor Co., 2009 WL 5168342 (W.D.Okla. 12/21/09). 

A seven-year-old rode her bicycle into the path of an oncoming Ford F150 pickup truck driven by Brandon Moore. Although he took evasive action, Moore was unable to avoid hitting the child, who was severely injured as a result of the impact. Plaintiff alleged that the truck wheels locked and the truck began to rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. The truck slid on wet pavement through the intersection, and the child was hit by the right rear corner of the truck as it passed through the inside lane.  Plaintiff brought an action against the manufacturer of the truck, Ford Motor Company, alleging that the truck was unreasonably dangerous because it lacked front-wheel anti-lock brakes (“ABS”).  Ford moved for summary judgment.

Under either a strict liability or negligence theory, plaintiff must show that the lack of front-wheel anti-lock brakes on the F-150 truck caused the accident. In support of its contention that the failure to equip Moore’s truck with ABS on all four wheels caused the accident, plaintiff offered the opinion of William Medcalf, a registered professional engineer. During his deposition, plaintiff’s expert conceded that he could not testify to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the alleged defect – lack of all-wheel ABS – caused the accident in this case. Expert testimony in this regard was crucial to plaintiff’s case as the efficacy and functionality of anti-lock braking systems are not within the understanding of ordinary jurors.

So far, so good. A basic failure of an expert to perform at deposition the way the plaintiff probably hoped he would.  But its what happened next that makes the case more useful.

The plaintiff offered a later affidavit from the same expert, but it was ignored because it was based on the same data he had when he gave his first opinion.  Readers of MassTortDefense may be interested in the discussion of another tactic, as the expert attempted to change his previous testimony to avoid summary judgment, through an errata sheet to his deposition, the court said. While Rule 30(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits "corrections" to deposition transcripts, it does not permit wholesale changes to sworn testimony. Coleman v. Southern Pac. Transp. Co., 997 F.Supp. 1197, 1205 (D. Ariz.1998) (discrediting deposition testimony directly contradicted by errata sheet); S.E.C. v. Parkersburg Wireless, L.L. C., 156 F.R.D. 529, 535 (D.D.C. 1994) (noting trend in which courts do not allow a party “to make any substantive change she so desires” in deposition testimony); Rios v. Bigler, 847 F.Supp. 1538, 1546-47 (D. Kan.1994) (court will consider only those changes which clarify the deposition, and not those which materially alter it); Greenway v. International Paper Co., 144 F.R.D. 322, 325 (W.D. La. 1992) (suppressing deponent's attempt to rewrite material answers given in deposition); Barlow v.. Esselte Pendaflex Corp., 111 F.R.D. 404, 406 (M.D.N.C. 1986) (refusing to consider changes to deposition that were made in bad faith).

The changes here were not a clarification; they were substantive changes diametrically opposed to the answers given during the deposition, said the court. Moreover, although Medcalf stated that his new answers were just clarifications to the record, there was no indication that he was confused during the deposition. That the expert treated the deposition like a "take home examination" was clear to the court not only from his proposed changes, but also from the timing of the errata sheet, which appeared only after Ford moved for summary judgment.

Plaintiff had no competent evidence that the accident would not have occurred had Moore’s truck been equipped with four-wheel ABS. It thus had no evidence that the alleged defect caused the accident and the subsequent injuries to plaintiff.  And the last minute attempts to fix that problem were of no avail. Defendant was therefore entitled to summary judgment in its favor. 

 

Summary Judgment in Remicade Case

Defendants were granted summary judgment in a case in which the parents of a young woman alleged her death was caused by the infusion treatment Remicade.  Mack v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., 2009 WL 4342513 (D. Md. 11/24/09).  The lesson here for defendants is to put plaintiffs to their proof on every element of a claim.

Crystal Ann Mack was diagnosed with a severe form of Crohn's disease, an inflammatory disease affecting the gastrointestinal tract. In the autumn of 2006, Ms. Mack was hospitalized on two occasions and ultimately diagnosed with anemia, vomiting, weight loss, and various other symptoms. Her treating physician recommended that Ms. Mack undergo Remicade treatments. She received four infusions, in accordance with the medication's dosing instructions. Later, Mack fell unconscious in her home and died. Mack's parents sued three defendants, the drug makers and the distributor, alleging that Mack died of a cardiac arrhythmia that was proximately caused by Remicade.

The defendants sought summary judgment.  Analyzing the product liability claims first, the court concluded that plaintiffs' claims cannot survive summary judgment because they did not establish an issue of fact on whether Remicade is a defective product. Plaintiffs made great efforts to prove specific and general causation, but they made no adequate showing with respect to the issue of defect. Because a showing of defect is an independent prerequisite for a products liability claim, the court didn't even feel the need not address whether plaintiffs satisfied their burden on the issue of causation.

In order to recover on a product defect claim, under the applicable state law, a plaintiff must prove that a defect which renders the product unreasonably dangerous might arise from the design of the product, a deficiency in its manufacture, or from the absence or inadequacy of any instructions or warnings as to its safe and appropriate use. The court noted that the plaintiffs did not assert a failure-to-warn theory.

Under Maryland law, courts may apply both the “risk/utility” test and the “consumer expectation” test when evaluating the efficacy of design defect claims. The “risk/utility” test involves an assessment of “whether the benefits of a product outweigh the dangers of its design.”  Alternatively, a drug could be deemed unreasonably dangerous if it is “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. Here, plaintiffs merely cited the legal standards for alleging and proving defect. 

Moreover, plaintiffs failed to present expert testimony on the issue of defect.  The testimony of the doctors largely focused on the issue of causation, and they failed to explain how Remicade was unreasonably dangerous. This shortcoming was especially damaging to plaintiffs' claims, because the issue of defect in this case involved technical medical questions beyond the common knowledge of laypersons.

Nor was there sufficient circumstantial evidence of defect. Plaintiffs' counsel proffered several miscellaneous documents, including internal corporate memoranda and correspondence that referred to the exhibited side effects of Remicade. However, such documents did not militate for the submission of the defect issue to a jury. The fact that a drug may exhibit certain adverse side effects does not, by itself, create an issue of material fact on whether the drug is unreasonably dangerous. The courts have recognized that all drugs involve risks of adverse side effects in those who take them.  In the face of FDA approval, plaintiffs would need to provide a much greater evidentiary showing to establish that the medication's attendant risks outweigh its benefits, the necessary showing under the “risk/utility” test.

 


 

Spyware Claim Does Not Survive Summary Judgment

A federal court has granted a software maker summary judgment in a case arising from the use of "spyware."  The plaintiff failed to convince the court that product liability claims were proper against the company who made the software the plaintiff's former wife allegedly targeted him with.  Hayes v. SpectorSoft Corp., 2009 WL 3713284 (E.D.Tenn. 11/3/09).

Plaintiff alleged that his former wife purchased software, including one called the “Spector Professional Edition for Windows," and installed it on his computer.  Plaintiff contends that following the installation of these software programs, the software recorded all his chat conversations, instant messages, e-mails sent and received, and the websites visited by plaintiff whenever he used his laptop computer, and re-transmitted such electronic communication to her (or a sister). SpectorSoft's software is apparently primarily used by parents and employers to monitor Internet use by children and employees.

The parties disputed whether SpectorSoft knew of the illegal use of the SpectorSoft software to gain access to plaintiff's private laptop communications. Plaintiff alleged that SpectorSoft knew or should have known about such usage. He thus asserted several causes of action (including negligence) against SpectorSoft for its alleged role in allowing his personal computer usage to be captured--  and that defendant  “aided and abetted” in the violation of his rights.

The court concluded first that plaintiff had not created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether SpectorSoft aided and abetted the alleged invasion of his privacy. There was no evidence that SpectorSoft took an affirmative act that encouraged the women to violate plaintiff's rights. In fact, SpectorSoft attempted to protect the rights of persons like plaintiff by requiring purchasers to accept its licensing terms prior to being allowed to install its software (which prohibited this kind of use). There was similarly no evidence that SpectorSoft knew anything about how the women were using its software. While some retailers marketed SpectorSoft's products to spouses concerned about adultery, SpectorSoft itself did not market its product for such uses, and it provided its users with a licensing agreement that it had reason to believe was valid. Furthermore, said  the court, even a broad-based marketing campaign does not provide the requisite affirmative act of specific encouragement or assistance to the individuals at issue in this case.

Turning to the claim under the state Products Liability Act , a seller of a consumer product may be liable for “injury to a person or property caused by the product” if “the product is determined to be in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.”  The court did not reach the issue whether software constitutes a “product” under the statute (nor the "misuse" issue which springs to mind), because the  Act defines a “product liability action” as one brought “for or on account of personal injury, death or property damage."  But plaintiff cited to no Tennessee authority suggesting that a products liability claim can be brought for emotional injuries alone, unaccompanied by some sort of physical injury or actual damage to property. Plaintiff did not allege in his Complaint that the alleged invasion of his privacy actually damaged his property, such as his computer or his business.

Similarly, plaintiff failed to provide appropriate legal support for his general negligence claim. Tennessee law does recognize a claim for general emotional distress caused by the negligent actions of another in the form of a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. See Eskin v. Bartee, 262 S.W.3d 727, 733 (Tenn.Sup.Ct.2008). But the Tennessee Supreme Court has established that where a case is purely one for emotional injury unaccompanied by damages for physical injury or other damages, the plaintiff must present material evidence as to each of the five elements of general negligence --duty, breach of duty, injury or loss, causation in fact, and proximate or legal, cause -- and, in order to guard against trivial or fraudulent actions, the law ought to provide recovery only for “serious” or “severe” emotional injury. 

On the duty element, the general duty of care does not include an affirmative duty to act for the protection of another, unless the defendant stands in some special relationship to either the person who is the source of the danger, or to the person who is foreseeably at risk from the danger.  There is no precedent for the proposition that a manufacturer of spyware software owes a duty to avoid emotional injury to the victim of the misuse of that software in violation of the software's licensing agreement. Plaintiff fails to demonstrate legal support for the proposition that SpectorSoft had a special relationship or that SpectorSoft somehow assumed a duty of care towards plaintiff.

Finally, plaintiff failed to present evidence of his severe or serious emotional distress. Without such evidence of severe emotional distress, plaintiff's negligence claim that asserts only garden variety anxiety and mental distress as damages must be dismissed. 

 

State Supreme Court Clarifies Subsequent Remedial Measure Doctrine

The Iowa Supreme Court last week issued an interesting decision clarifying the subsequent remedial measure doctrine in that jurisdiction, and offering some good general notions. Scott v. Dutton-Lainson Co., 2009 WL 3415937 (Iowa 10/23/09).

A little background.  Readers of MassTort Defense know that despite the nostalgic effort of some courts to try to maintain a bright line between strict liability and negligence claims, it is pure semantics to try to confine certain product defect claims to a "strict" regime.  Specifically, failure to warn claims and design defect claims (as opposed to manufacturing defect claims) have been largely recognized as sounding, at least in part, in negligence.  In the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, the standards for design defect and failure-to-warn claims require consideration of reasonableness and therefore incorporate negligence principles.

Beyond the articulation of the causes of action, the classification of the claims has other potential impact in a products liability claim, such as in this case. Plaintiff worked for a boat dealership and suffered an injured foot when the jack on a boat trailer collapsed.  Plaintiff offered a design defect theory, that the jack's pin should have been longer, allowing users to better see whether the pin was engaged. (A competitor allegedly made a longer pin.)  Below, plaintiff sought to introduce three bits of testimony regarding defendant's alleged subsequent changes to the pin tooling, which lengthened it and thus allowed it to reach further into the pin hole.  The first was deposition testimony from a company officer concerning changing the tooling.  Second was a deposition of a witness who reportedly heard a company official say the pin was lengthened as a result of plaintiff's accident. The third was proposed testimony that the redesign allowed the pin to move further into the hole.

As in some states, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.407 excludes evidence of subsequent remedial measures to prove negligence or culpable conduct, but not in strict liability claims.  Plaintiff, of course, argued that the proposed testimony was for his strict liability claims.  The trial court excluded the evidence at trial, which resulted in a defense verdict.

The state supreme court held that design defect and failure-to-warn claims sound in negligence, rather than strict liability.  Thus, the lower court had been correct to exclude evidence of the subsequent measures at the trial. Evidence of subsequent remedial measures, which a party seeks to introduce in an action based on a design defect claim, a failure to warn claim, or a breach of warranty claim brought under either theory, is not categorically exempt from exclusion under rule 5.407, because these claims are not strict liability claims. Instead, trial courts must analyze the reason a party seeks to admit such evidence. According to rule 5.407, evidence of subsequent remedial measures is not admissible to show negligence or culpable conduct. Such evidence is admissible to show “ownership, control, or feasibility of precautionary measures, if controverted, or impeachment.” Iowa R. Evid. 5.407.

The court found that the exceptions in the rule adequately accommodate a plaintiff's burden to prove a reasonable alternative design.  A plaintiff has the opportunity to introduce evidence of subsequent remedial measures if the defendant disputes the feasibility of a suggested alternative design.

The court found that important policy reasons, including the need to avoid deterring individuals from making improvements or repairs after an accident, supported the exclusion. Plaintiffs, and misguided academics, often assert that manufacturers will choose to make improvements to a product even if those improvements are admissible because the producer would otherwise risk litigation and negative publicity.  But there is a substantial body of criticism of that notion, which overstates the relevance of subsequent remedial measures, appears to have an over-focus on mass product producers (when the rule applies to everyone), and invites confusion of the jury, both by diverting its attention from whether the product was defective at the relevant time to what was done later, and by facilitating, in the minds of jurors, an inappropriate equation between subsequent design modification and an admission of a prior defective design.  This plaintiff's argument premises its conclusions concerning hypothetical manufacturer conduct upon the assumption that the product at issue is in fact defective, overlooking the situation where the product is not defective but could have been, and may be later, improved.

 

Use of Company Conduct Evidence to Prove Liability or Punitive Damages

As due process considerations have taken their more appropriate place in the law of punitive damages, see BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996), trial courts have struggled with the intersection of traditional product liability law and new rules on evidence necessitated by such due process concerns. 

For example, plaintiffs frequently seek to use evidence of other allegedly similar conduct and allegedly substantially similar accidents, injuries, incidents for liability related issues such as notice and defect.  In Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Williams, 127 S.Ct. 1057 (2008), however, the Court confirmed a significant constitutional principle limiting punitive damages awards: the Due Process Clause prohibits juries from basing punitive damages awards even in part upon the desire to punish a defendant for harm to persons that are not before the court. 

Williams arose from an Oregon trial wherein a jury awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages against cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris. At trial, the plaintiff’s attorney had urged the jury to punish Philip Morris for alleged harm to smokers other than the plaintiff by referring to the defendant’s market share and the number of smokers not only in the state of Oregon, but nationwide, who had allegedly contracted a smoking-related illness in the last 40 years. The Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause forbids a jury from assessing punitive damages to punish a defendant for injury that it inflicts upon non-parties or “strangers” to this litigation. While a jury may consider the actual or potential harm to non-parties in the narrow context of determining “reprehensibility” of the conduct, which in turn is one of the factors relevant to an analysis whether the punitive damages award is excessive or not, it may not punish the defendant for the impact of its alleged misconduct on other people, who may bring lawsuits of their own in which other juries can resolve their claims.

The Supreme Court cautioned state courts that they must make sure that the “jury will ask the right question, not the wrong one.”  That is, evidence regarding alleged injuries of those not before the court must be used solely to judge the reprehensibility of the conduct, not to assess damages for the harm caused to those strangers. While the Court commented on the Oregon court’s refusal to give a jury instruction clarifying this distinction, it noted generally that state courts cannot authorize any procedures that create an unreasonable and necessary risk of any such confusion occurring. When evidence is introduced or argument made that risks this confusion, the state court must take steps to protect against that risk. 

Another such conflict was seen in the recent Montana case involving the trial court's exclusion of a car seat manufacturer's evidence of regulatory compliance.  Malcolm v. Evenflo Co., 2009 WL 2917799 (Mont., September 14, 2009).  The state supreme court ruled that while the evidence should have been excluded from the jury's consideration of liability for compensatory damages, the evidence should have been admitted for purposes of assessing punitive damages.  It let stand the compensatory award, but vacated the punitive damages award.

The case arose from a motor vehicle accident during which plaintiff's decedent  rode in the back of an SUV in the OMW model 207 child seat. A northbound motorist swerved into plaintiff Malcolm's lane and forced Malcolm off the road. The vehicle rolled three times, traveled down a steep incline, and stopped in a ditch.  The left belt hook of the OMW broke off during the rollover. The seat belt slipped out from the open-ended belt hook on the opposite side of the seat. The forces of the accident ejected the OMW from the vehicle, which resulted in death, according to plaintiffs.

The theory at trial was strict liability in tort, design defect theory. The Malcolms claimed that the Evenflo OMW model 207 infant child safety seat constituted a defectively designed product that failed even though they had used the seat in a reasonably anticipated manner. The Malcolms pointed to the OMW's open-ended belt hook design that might have prevented the injury. The Malcolms contended that Evenflo could have manufactured the OMW using an allegedly  feasible superior alternative design that required the vehicle's seatbelt to be routed through an enclosed seat belt tunnel even when the seat was used without the base. The Malcolms also sought punitive damages. The Malcolms alleged that Evenflo “continued selling the defective product in conscious, deliberate and intentional disregard of the danger presented.”

Evenflo contended that the OMW model 207 was not defective in any way. Evenflo argued that the severity of the forces involved in the accident were the sole cause of the death. Evenflo argued that the “tremendous forces” that occurred during the rollover forced open the rear passenger door, which was immediately adjacent to Tyler's child seat. Evenflo posited that Tyler's car seat came into direct contact with the ground as the Suburban rolled. Evenflo argued that the contact caused the seat to detach from the seat belt system and ultimately fly out the open door.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires that all child restraint systems comply with the minimum requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. See 49 C.F.R. § 571.213 (2009). NHTSA required Evenflo to conduct internal testing of the OMW to determine if it complied with the FMVSS 213 standards, which it did. NHTSA and Transport Canada, the Canadian testing agency, conducted random audit FMVSS 213 tests in addition to Evenflo's internal testing.

The first issue was the basic products issue: Evenflo argued that the trial court erred when it excluded any evidence that the OMW model 207 complied with FMVSS 213. Evenflo contended that the fact that the OMW model 207 passed 341 tests performed under FMVSS 213 was highly relevant to the claim that the model 207 was defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Evenflo noted that the standard would be admissible in a negligence case, and  there is no reason why such highly relevant evidence should not be used in strict products liability cases. Thus, Evenflo urged the Court to adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 4 (1998). Section 4 provides that compliance with an applicable regulation is admissible in connection with liability for defective design. Evenflo noted that a majority of jurisdictions hold that compliance with product safety regulation is relevant and admissible on the question of defectiveness, even if it is not necessarily controlling.

The four-justice majority reiterated this court's adherence to “well-settled, decades-old principles of strict liability” that consider irrelevant a manufacturer's reasonableness and level of care. The court declined to adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, §4.  Montana thus continues to be one of those few states that cling to the now-discredited "bright line" verbal distinction between cases asserting strict liability in tort and those grounded in negligence theory. (This Court had previously distinguished strict liability from negligence when it rejected the “state of the art” defense, for example, because it raises issues of reasonableness and foreseeability --concepts fundamental to negligence law.)  It still argues that any attempt to inject so-called negligence principles into strict liability law would somehow sever Montana's strict products liability law from the core principles for which it was adopted.  The focus in design defect cases must be on “the condition of the product,” rather than “the manufacturer's conduct or knowledge."  And the way to do this, apparently, is to exclude relevant, material, probative evidence that the product passed regulatory muster.

On the punitive damages issue, Evenflo argued that the trial court's decision to exclude evidence of the OMW model 207's compliance with FMVSS 213 prevented it from introducing evidence bearing on its state of mind. A defendant's state of mind is a “key element” in assessing punitive damages, and the car seat maker should have been able to present evidence of its regulatory compliance. 

The trial court had concluded that the OMW model 207's compliance with FMVSS 213 had “absolutely no bearing at all upon the reprehensibility of the conduct of Evenflo.” But the supreme court could not sustain the verdict on punitives in light of the court's decision to exclude evidence that might show why Evenflo acted as it did, or failed to act, when the jury considered whether to award punitive damages. Evidence of Evenflo's good faith effort to comply with all government regulations, including FMVSS 213, would be evidence of conduct inconsistent with the mental state requisite for punitive damages.

Interestingly, the supreme court noted that while here a new jury here could consider evidence of the OMW model 207's compliance with FMVSS 213 for the purposes of determining whether Evenflo acted with actual fraud or actual malice, generally the Montana system provides for the presentation of evidence regarding liability for compensatory damages and punitive damages to the jury in a single proceeding. Thus, bifurcation is disfavored, and the trial courts must ordinarily trust that the jury will heed the court's instructions as to how to evaluate the evidence presented.

One dissenting justice would have also reversed the compensatory damages. He differed from the majority on how the trial was conducted and saw it as improperly biased against Evenflo. Two other dissenters agreed with the majority on the compensatory damages but would have sustained the punitive award, arguing that Evenflo's inability to present evidence of its compliance with regulations did not prejudice the company.

Juror Internet Search Warrants New Trial

Many a reader of MassTortDefense has wondered and worried about whether jurors were following a court's admonishment not to see or read anything about the issues in a case outside of the court room.  Sequestration is rare, especially in a civil case. (The O. J. Simpson jury was sequestered for eight and a half months.)  And with the advent of the Internet, jurors have potential access not only to publicity about the actual trial, but fingertip access to research tools on any issue in the case. Some of the same concerns arise with potential jurors; it may be impossible to ask enough specific questions in the voir dire process to ferret out every such issue.

A recent take on this comes in Russo v. Takata Corp., 2009 WL 2963065 (S.D. 9/16/09).  The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that a potential juror's Google search of a defendant seat belt manufacturer, and his conversation about his findings with other jurors during deliberations, warranted a new trial.

Plaintiffs' decedent was a  sixteen year old driver of her mother's vehicle, on the way to school. The vehicle crossed the centerline, traveled back into its lane of traffic, slid sideways off of the shoulder of the road, and rolled almost three times down a steep ravine before hitting a tree. The girl was killed.  Plaintiffs alleged that the seat belt unlatched due to inertial forces acting on the buckles during the rollover. General Motors Corporation and Suzuki Motor Corporation settled their respective claims before trial.

Takata, the manufacturer of the model TK-52 seat belts installed in the vehicle, denied Plaintiffs' claims. Takata proceeded to trial under the theory that the decedent did not buckle her seat belt before the crash, and that she negligently failed to maintain control over the vehicle. Takata also denied that inertial unlatching of the model TK-52 seat belts was possible in real world accidents.
 

Takata filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude or limit evidence on alleged prior seat belt failures. The trial court determined that such evidence was “relevant solely to the issue of notice regarding the alleged defect” and irrelevant to whether a defect actually existed in the seat belt involved in this case. It then limited the evidence of prior alleged accidents, claims, and lawsuits to the issue of notice.


At trial, Plaintiffs presented evidence that other drivers or passengers had experienced seat belt failures in the past. Some of the witnesses were uncertain whether their seat belt was manufactured by Takata, or whether notification given to General Motors was passed on to Takata. Evidence was also presented to the jury that ten other lawsuits had been filed against Takata alleging seatbelt malfunctions. The jury was instructed that evidence of other lawsuits and complaints was “only for the purpose of establishing whether Takata had notice of the alleged defect.”

During deliberations, one juror asked out loud whether Takata had ever been sued. A juror (Flynn, according to the opinion) responded that he had done a Google search and had learned that Takata manufactured seat belts and airbags but did not find any lawsuits during his search. The entire exchange lasted approximately three to five minutes, and no report was made to the trial court concerning Flynn's remarks. The jury deliberated for approximately another one and one-half hours before reaching a verdict for Takata.  Plaintiffs later filed a Motion for New Trial alleging juror misconduct. Affidavits from ten jurors were filed with the motion.

The state Supreme Court noted it was announcing no hard and fast rule that all such types of Internet research by a juror prior to trial without notice to the court and counsel automatically doom a jury's verdict. Rather, the court gave deference to the trial court, which had the distinct advantage of being present throughout the nineteen-day trial. The trial court was in the best position to determine whether material was extrinsic to the issues before the jury, or whether the extraneous material prejudiced the jury. The trial court's award of a new trial was affirmed.
 

The reasoning: statutory language in many jurisdictions limits the type of information that a juror may be asked to provide via an affidavit or under oath at a hearing on a motion for new trial.  And that's the only way, typically, for a litigant to show juror conduct.  The prohibition on admitting testimony and affidavits pertains to intrinsic information, which includes statements or discussions which took place during deliberations.  Testimony and affidavits concerning extrinsic information, however, may be obtained from a juror.  Extrinsic information includes media publicity, conversations between jurors and non-jurors, and evidence not admitted by the court.  It also includes “knowledge relevant to the facts in issue not obtained through the introduction of evidence but acquired prior to trial, experiments, investigations, news media, etc.”   Secondly, the type of after-acquired information that potentially taints a jury verdict should be carefully distinguished from the general knowledge, opinions, feelings and bias that every juror carries into the jury room.

Takata argued that the information Flynn obtained during his Google searches was not extrinsic  because it was obtained before trial and was discoverable through voir dire.  As such, Takata argued it should have been explored during voir dire. The court found that Takata's argument that Plaintiffs could have asked more probing questions and possibly discovered Flynn's prior knowledge was likely valid. Takata's argument, however, missed the mark, said the court, in that Flynn obtained the information (that no lawsuits were listed on Takata's home page) after receiving his jury summons; that fact was specific to the defendant and relevant to evidence that was admitted at trial for a limited purpose under a carefully crafted order.  It pertained to the issue of knowledge of a defect with the TK-52 seat belt, an issue hotly contested between the parties, and it directly contradicted the evidence admitted at trial under the trial court's limiting order. This was not simply information that Flynn obtained in passing from media outlets prior to his awareness that a suit against defendants was pending.  The juror apparently sought out the information specifically in response to the receipt of the summons in which the names of the defendants were first made known to him, observed the court.

The burden of persuasion as to prejudice is on the party seeking a new trial. The trial court concluded as a matter of law that Flynn's extrinsic information prejudiced the jury's verdict. The information was presented to jurors at an arguably critical juncture during deliberations, and it had a tendency to influence the jury in a manner inconsistent with the evidence and the instructions of the trial court. Extrinsic information that goes beyond the mental processes of one juror and becomes known to other jurors can prejudice a jury verdict and affect the substantial rights of the party seeking a new trial. At least four jurors, including Flynn, were involved in the conversation in which Flynn revealed his Google search. While all jurors agreed that the jury did not discuss the Google search as a panel during deliberations, the state Supreme Court did not require that the entire jury be exposed to extrinsic information in order to proceed to determine whether there was prejudicial effect.

Takata argued on appeal that the verdict on the defect claims had already been put to a vote, and the jury found that her seatbelt was not defective. Plaintiffs argued in response that the jury verdict form had not been signed at the time Flynn made his remarks. Thus, they concluded the jury had yet to reach a final verdict at the time in question.

The state high court found that the trial court was in the best position to determine which claims had been dealt with and which ones remained to be discussed by the jury at the time of Flynn's comments. It concluded that the issue of whether the seat belts were defective and whether Takata had notice was "still in play" at the time Flynn revealed his Internet searches to members of the jury.

State Supreme Court Decision Turns On Absence Of Causation Proof

The Indiana Supreme Court issued a decision recently, reminding us of the importance of fully developing the causation case, in addition to the response to plaintiff's defect allegations. Kovach v. Caligor Midwest, 2009 WL 2871172 (Ind. September 8, 2009).

The plaintiffs alleged their son was given a fatal overdose of pain medication by a nurse after a surgical procedure. The plaintiffs sued the manufacturers and distributors of the medicine cup used to administer the medication, alleging that defects in design of the cup made it unsuitable for the precise measurements necessary for drugs, and alleging a failure to warn that the cup was not suitable for precision measurement. The interior of the cup bore translucent markings to measure its contents, and graduations delineated both 15 and 30 mL. The nurse had used that type of cup frequently, both at this surgical center and at other hospitals, and she had no difficulty reading its markings. The nurse testified she filled the cup approximately half-way and administered 15 mL of medication to plaintiff's decedent.  According to decedent's father, however, who was present when the drug was administered, the nurse gave the son a full cup of medicine.

So, as is frequently the case, a potential malpractice claim is turned into a product liability claim against an ostensibly deeper pocket, unencumbered by med mal tort reform restrictions.

The plaintiffs presented expert evidence opining that the cup was defective in design and warnings, evidence that was challenged by the defense.  Plaintiffs also argued that if the medicine cup had been better suited as a precision measuring device or had contained a warning that it was not suitable for precision measurement, the decedent would not have received an overdose -- the alleged causal link.  The court did not have to reach the issues surrounding the alleged defects and the expert affidavit which plaintiffs had put forward to support their theory of defect, because the facts established that there was no such causal connection. The results of an autopsy revealed that the decedent had more than twice the recommended therapeutic level of codeine in his blood stream. The undisputed evidence thus demonstrated that if there was an overdose in this case, it was not caused by an imprecise measurement of medication attributable to less than readily discernible marks. (The plaintiff expert had estimated that the cup's imprecision could result in up to a 20% to 30% margin of error.) Rather, if the drug was the medical cause of the death, it was due to an erroneous, double dosage; the accident therefore cannot be attributed in a legal cause sense to any alleged defects in the cup itself.

Plaintiffs tried to then rely on the "read-and-heed" presumption -- i.e., the notion in some jurisdictions that the jury can presume that if an adequate warning had been given it would have been heeded. Such a presumption may aid a defendant when a warning was given.  Plaintiffs often try to use the presumption to attempt to clear the causation hurdle when no warning is given.  But the presumption does not completely dispose of the causation issue in a failure-to-warn case, said the court. The most the presumption does is establish that a warning would have been read and obeyed. It does not necessarily establish that the defect in fact caused the plaintiff's injury. The plaintiff invoking the presumption must still show that the danger which allegedly would have been prevented by an appropriate warning was the danger that actually materialized in the plaintiff's case.  

Plaintiffs could not show that element, given the circumstances of the drug usage. The judgment of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of the cup defendants was affirmed. 

 

Class Action Dismissed In Printer Litigation

The federal court has dismissed a proposed class action accusing Dell Inc. of fraudulently marketing an ink-jet printer feature to convince customers to replace ink cartridges that don't need to be replaced yet. Dajani v. Dell Inc., 2009 WL 1833983 (N.D.Cal. June 25, 2009).

Dajani alleged that Dell fraudulently marketed its Ink Management System, a technology feature on all Dell ink jet printers.  The feature will display ink levels on a status window during a print job. The complaint alleged that the Ink Management System was highly imprecise and inaccurate, and that it was designed to deceive customers into replacing what they believed to be nearly empty cartridges, when they actually still contained a substantial amount of usable ink. Dajani sought to represent a class of all Californians who own or have owned Dell ink jet printers.

Judge Susan Illston rejected the lawsuit, without leave to amend the complaint.  Previously, the court had dismissed California-law based claims, as the terms and conditions of his sales agreement provided for Texas law to be allied to all claims. The amended complaint alleged a claim under Texas law for breach of implied warranty of merchantability and a claim of unjust
enrichment.

The court ruled last week that the claim for the breach of implied warranty of merchantability could not survive, because the printer was not unmerchantable as the term is defined under Texas law. The product must be unfit for the ordinary purposes for which it is used because of a lack of something necessary for adequacy.  Dell argued that the ordinary use of the product was printing, not measuring ink, and that any alleged imprecision in the Ink Management System had no impact on that basic function. The court agreed, finding that at most, plaintiff had alleged that the use of the Ink Management System is cumbersome because of allegedly premature replacement prompts. The device still worked.  And plaintiff hurt his claim by alleging that upon receiving “low ink” warnings, he simply removed and discarded his ink cartridge and replaced it with a new one. Such was "plainly at odds" with the product’s instruction manual, which states that a low ink warning appears when ink cartridges are low, not yet empty, and that a separate "reserve tank"  window appears when they are empty.

The judge also dismissed the unjust enrichment claim because under Texas law, when a valid, express contract covers the subject matter of the parties' dispute, there can be no recovery under a theory of unjust enrichment. Fortune Prod. Co. v. Conoco, Inc., 52 S.W.3d 671, 684 (Tex.2000) (“Parties should be bound by their express agreements. When a valid agreement already addresses the matter, recovery under an equitable theory is generally inconsistent with the express agreement.”).

Because plaintiff cannot cure the defects mentioned above through the pleading of additional facts which do not contradict those already made, plaintiff's complaint was dismissed without leave to amend.

State Supreme Court Affirms Summary Judgment Under Risk-Utility Test

The Texas Supreme Court last week upheld summary judgment in a design defect case, finding that under the risk-utility test, the commercial trailer at issue was not defective as a matter of law. See Timpte Industries Inc. v. Gish, Texas, No. 08-0043, (6/5/09).

Readers of MassTortDefense recognize that in a strict products liability claim, the risk-utility test has been the dominant test of "defectiveness" employed by state courts. The opinion offers an interesting example of the potential relevance of an obvious design risk (even in a jurisdiction that has rejected the obvious danger rule), and the interplay of warnings and design issues.

Plaintiff Gish was seriously injured when he fell from the top of a commercial “Super Hopper” trailer into which he was attempting to load fertilizer. He sued Timpte, the manufacturer of the trailer, alleging, among other things, that several features of the trailer were defectively designed, rendering the trailer unreasonably dangerous. The Super Hopper trailer is a standard open-top, twin hopper trailer, which is loaded from above through use of a downspout or other device and is emptied through two openings on its bottom. Once the trailer is loaded, a tarp is rolled over the top
to protect its contents.  A ladder and an observation platform are attached to the front and rear of the trailer to allow the operator to view its contents.

The downspout that was loading fertilizer into the trailer was not lowering properly on the day of the accident.  Gish pulled on a rope to lower it, but that was unsuccessful, so he climbed up the front platform ladder and climbed onto the top rail to work with the downspout. A gust of wind hit him from the back, causing him to fall.

Plaintiff alleged defects in the top two rungs of the ladders attached to the front and rear of the trailer which allowed a person to climb atop the trailer; and a defect as to the top rail of the trailer, which was allegedly too narrow and slippery and contained too many tripping hazards for a person to walk safely along it.

To recover for a products liability claim alleging a design defect, under Texas law, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the product was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous; (2) a safer alternative design existed; and (3) the defect was a producing cause of the injury for which the plaintiff seeks recovery. To determine whether a product was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous, Texas courts have long applied a form of the risk-utility analysis that requires consideration of the following factors: (a) the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole weighed against the gravity and likelihood of injury from its use; (b) the availability of a substitute which would meet the same need and not be unsafe or unreasonably expensive; (c) the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without seriously impairing its usefulness or significantly increasing its costs; (d) the user’s anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions; and (e) the expectations of the ordinary consumer.

The court emphasized that risk-utility analysis does not operate in a vacuum, but rather in the context of the product’s intended use and its intended users. Specifically, while Texas has rejected the “open and obvious danger rule” under which obvious risks are not design defects which must be remedied, the obviousness of the claimed defect is an important consideration in determining whether the product is unreasonably dangerous -- and may even be decisive in a particular case.

Essentially, Gish complained that the trailer’s design failed to prevent him from climbing atop the trailer and then, once he was up there, failed to protect him from the risk of falling. The court found no evidence, however, that the top rail of the trailer was unreasonably dangerous in light of its use and purpose. The risk of falling while trying to balance on a 5 inch wide strip of extruded aluminum nearly ten feet above the ground is an obvious risk that is certainly within the ordinary knowledge common to the community. Timpte warned users to always maintain three-point contact with the trailer, which is impossible for a user standing on the top rail. Had Gish adhered to this warning, his accident would not have happened. Additionally, widening the side walls of the trailer so as to convert the top rail into a safe walkway, as Gish’s expert proposed, would have increased the cost and weight of the trailer while decreasing its utility.

Moreover, Gish’s injury was only remotely related to the ladder’s top two rungs: they allowed him to climb atop the trailer, where he was subsequently injured. Timpte warned users not to use the ladder to climb into the trailer itself, and the obvious nature of the risk of climbing onto the top rail negated  the need for any additional warning. The two top rungs were necessary to maintain the stability of the ladder and provide an emergency handhold in the event someone slips on the ladder. Their utility was high, the court concluded, and Gish's injury was “only remotely related” to those rungs.