Proof of Feasible Alternative Design Does Not Prove Defect

Readers know that most jurisdictions require that a plaintiff alleging a design defect in a product must produce sufficient evidence of a feasible alternative design that would have avoided the plaintiff's injury had it been adopted.  But a Texas appeals court reminded us recently that evidence of a safer alternative design, while necessary, is not sufficient to show a design defect. Zavala v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., No. 08-10-00169-CV (Tex. App., 8th Dist., 8/24/11).

Plaintiff filed suit against the railroad, alleging personal injuries sustained while attempting to open an allegedly defective railcar hopper door to unload sugar. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, and Zavala appealed.

Plaintiff alleged a manufacturing defect, but he could not identify the exact car which injured him or pinpoint any specific defect on that car. He did not see the hopper car again, but he identified the opening mechanism on a BNSF model 450 car as the “same or substantially similar hopper loading mechanism I was injured on.”  The court concluded that since he could not identify the specific car which caused his injuries, he must show more than a scintilla of evidence that all BNSF model 450 cars possess a manufacturing defect. That he could not do.

The court then turned to the alleged design defect. The defect was the alleged unreasonably
dangerous condition of the hopper car opening mechanism. Texas courts apply a risk-utility analysis to design defects 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 design 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.  The risk-utility analysis operates in the context of the product’s intended use and its intended users.

The court of appeals reasoned that global assertions that all model 450 doors were defective because they were all hard to open does not create more than a mere suspicion of a defect. It refused to hold that a hard-to-open door is necessarily a malfunction, or that circumstantial proof of a hard-to-open door suffices to demonstrate a design defect.

Plaintiff pointed to his expert evidence of an alleged feasible alternative design for the hopper door. Although evidence of an alternative safer design may assist in proving a design defect, proof of an alleged safer alternative design is not enough to sustain a defective design claim, concluded the court of appeals. See also Hernandez v. Tokai Corp., 2 S.W.3d 251, 256 (Tex. 1999)(proof of an alternative safer design does not negate the common law requirement that the alleged defect renders the product unreasonably dangerous).  A design defect claim arises if a safer alternative design existed and there is a defect that was a producing cause of the personal injury, property damage, or death for which the claimant seeks recovery.

Here, plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence to create an issue of fact on defect, even if he did have evidence of a feasible alternative design.  In essence, the court recognized that there can be more than one non-defective way to design a product. There may be different pluses and minuses in each design, and the existence of an alternative does not render all other alternatives necessarily defective.

 

How Much Did They Pay? I Need to Know

Many mass torts involve multiple defendants, and many of our readers have been in the position of hearing that co-defendants had settled out of the case.  It is natural to wonder, and could be quite useful to know, what co-defendants paid to settle their part of the case.  Typically, the agreements are subject to confidentiality agreements, and the protections of Fed. R. Evid. 408, which recognizes the strong public policy promoting settlement. See Block Drug Co. v. Sedona Labs., Inc., 2007 WL 1183828, at *1 (D.Del. Apr.19, 2007); Fidelity Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. Felicetti, 148 F.R.D. 532, 534 (E.D.Pa.1993).

A recent federal case tested these boundaries.  Dent v. Westinghouse, et al., 2010 WL 56054 (E.D.Pa. Jan. 4, 2010).  Warren Pumps, a defendant in multi-party asbestos litigation, filed a motion to compel the plaintiff to respond to certain interrogatories and requests for production of documents regarding the settlement of any claim asserted in the complaint. Plaintiff objected.  The thrust of Warren Pumps' argument was that the discovery about each additional asbestos-containing product which plaintiff claims caused his mesothelioma made it that much less likely that his mesothelioma was caused by exposure to any Warren Pump product.  And it allegedly made plaintiff's assertions to the contrary less and less credible.

Warren Pumps pointed out that on its face Rule 408 pertains to the admissibility of evidence, and argued it was inapplicable to a discovery dispute. (citing DirecTV, Inc. v. Puccinelli, 224 F.R.D. 677, 685 (D.Kan.2004)).  Although Rule 408 speaks in terms of admissibility, several courts have concluded that a heightened showing is required for even the discovery of settlement information. That is, they have required a more particularized showing that the evidence of settlement sought is relevant and calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Block Drug, 2007 WL 1183828, at *1; Lesal Interiors, Inc. v. Resolution Trust Corp., 153 F.R.D. 561, 562 (D.N.J.1994)). 

Warren Pumps also argued that it was not seeking the information for any purpose prohibited by the rule.  Rule 408 bars the use of settlement information “to prove liability for, invalidity of, or amount of a claim....” F.R.E. 408(a). Among other purposes, Rule 408 specifically permits settlement evidence to show a witness's bias or prejudice. F.R.E. 408(b).  The defendant contended that it was merely seeking the settlement information to test the credibility of plaintiff's claims.

The court found this was merely "repackaging" the motives forbidden by Rule 408 by placing them under the guise of credibility.  To the extent the defendant was seeking the information to determine whether the dismissed co-defendants were dismissed for lack of evidence, Warren Pumps wanted to impugn the credibility of plaintiff's claims against Warren Pumps by virtue of his apparently merit-less claims against the dismissed co-defendants. Thus, Warren Pumps sought the information to prove the invalidity of the claims against it, a use which Rule 408 prohibits, said the court.  To the extent defendant sought the settlement information, and the amounts of those settlements, it was trying to show that if plaintiff had settled with a co-defendant more or less equivalent in culpability to Warren for a certain sum of money, and thus established the value of his damages with regard to that co-defendant, it would not be credible for plaintiff to seek a higher sum from Warren.   But, said the court, this would be using the settlement information to establish the amount of plaintiff's claim against Warren Pumps. Again, this is forbidden by Rule 408.

Bottom line, the discovery was denied because while disclosure of the settlement agreements would reveal the amount of money plaintiff received from other asbestos manufacturers, the settlement amounts could not then be used to prove the extent of plaintiff's exposure to, or damages from, asbestos from another manufacturer's product.