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.

 

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. 
 

Appeals Court Vacates Asbestos Plaintiff Jury Verdict

The Florida court of appeals recently reversed a $6.6 million judgment for the plaintiff in an asbestos case raising interesting issues of the law applicable to design and warning defects. See Union Carbide Corp. v. Aubin,  No. 3D10-1982 (3d DCA 6/20/12).

Plaintiff Aubin worked construction and alleged he routinely handled and was otherwise exposed to joint compounds and ceiling textures that contained asbestos. He contracted mesothelioma and sued.  At trial, plaintiff presented studies purportedly linking defendant's product to a higher degree of danger with respect to the development of asbestosis than other types of asbestos, but he failed to introduce any evidence suggesting it was more dangerous than other asbestos fibers with respect to the contraction of cancer or peritoneal mesothelioma. Also at trial, the parties offered contrasting evidence as to whether Union Carbide adequately informed intermediary manufacturers about the dangers of asbestos. Defense representatives testified that along with an OSHA-mandated warning label, Union Carbide regularly updated its clients regarding the dangers of asbestos as such dangers came to light. Conversely, plaintiff claimed that because there were no warnings on the end product, he was unaware of the dangers associated with the liberation of asbestos fibers into the air, and, therefore, allegedly did not wear any respiratory masks or protective gear while working around the asbestos.

Relying on the component parts doctrine recognized by the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 5 (1997), adopted by the 3d DCA in Kohler Co. v. Marcotte, 907 So. 2d 596, 598-99 (Fla. 3d DCA 2005), defendant moved for a directed verdict on plaintiff's strict liability and negligence claims. That motion was denied. At the charge conference, Union Carbide also requested jury instructions regarding the Third Restatement’s component parts doctrine, The trial court denied Union Carbide’s requests, choosing instead to deliver the special instructions that were requested by plaintiff. The key instruction read: “An asbestos manufacturer, such as Union Carbide Corporation, has a duty to warn end users of an unreasonable danger in the contemplated use of its products.”  The requested context was not provided.

The court of appeals concluded that the trial court erred, first, in determining that Aubin’s claims were governed by the Second Restatement rather than the Third Restatement and, as a result, erred in denying Union Carbide’s motion for a directed verdict with respect to Aubin’s design defect claim. Second, the trial court erred in instructing the jury that Union Carbide had a duty to warn end-users without also instructing the jury that a defendant could have discharged this duty by adequately warning the intermediary manufacturers, and reasonably relying on them to warn end-users. Accordingly, the court remanded for a new trial as to the warning defect claim.

Specifically, the trial court erred as a matter of law in determining that Aubin’s claims were governed by Sections 388 and 402 of the Second Restatement.  In Kohler, the court had adopted the component parts doctrine articulated in Section 5 of the Third Restatement as the governing law for products liability claims arising out of a defendant’s sale of a component part to a manufacturer who then incorporates the component into its own products. Kohler, 907 So. 2d at 598-99. This Appeals Court’s adoption of the Third Restatement was later reaffirmed and extended in Agrofollajes, S.A. v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., 48 So. 3d 976, 997 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010), which rejected the Second Restatement’s “consumer expectations” test as an independent basis for finding a design defect, determining instead that, after Kohler, the appropriate standard is the “risk-utility/risk-benefit” test articulated in Section 2 of the Third Restatement.

Regarding the warnings claim instructions, reversible error exists where the trial court delivers an instruction that reasonably might have misled the jury.   Plaintiff Aubin had requested, and the trial court granted, the special instruction: “An asbestos manufacturer, such as Union Carbide Corporation, has a duty to warn end-users of an unreasonable danger in the contemplated use of its products.” While this requested special instruction was "technically accurate," it was, standing alone, misleading because Florida law provides that this duty may be discharged by reasonable reliance on an intermediary. Recognizing that Aubin’s requested instruction was misleading, Union Carbide requested that Aubin’s special instruction be supplemented with an explanation of how the duty to warn could have been discharged by Union Carbide. The trial court rejected Union Carbide’s request, and delivered Aubin’s instruction without further explanation. This was also error.

The court of appeals explained that under both the Third Restatement and the Second Restatement, the determination as to whether a manufacturer like Union Carbide may rely on intermediaries to warn end-users is to be analyzed by the trier of fact, and the standard to be  employed is one of “reasonableness.” The Third Restatement provides several factors to guide the analysis, and these factors are substantially the same as those set forth in the Section 388 of the Second Restatement under comment n.  The trial court, however, did not instruct the jury on any of these factors. 

Because the trial court’s instruction communicated to the jury that Union Carbide had a duty to warn end-users, but did not inform the jury that Union Carbide could have discharged its duty by adequately warning the intermediary manufacturers and reasonably relying on them to warn end-users, the court of appeals concluded that the instruction given was misleading and entitled defendant to a new trial.

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.

 

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.

 

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. 


 

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.   

State Supreme Court Adopts Risk Utility Test for Defect

The South Carolina Supreme Court last week vacated a $31 million verdict for a minor injured in a Ford Bronco rollover accident.  Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 2010 WL 3219499 (S.C. 8/16/10).  The case raises a number of interesting points for our readers.

This was a product liability action involving a Ford Bronco II.   Hale was driving the vehicle with several children as passengers, including her daughter seated in the front passenger seat.  No one was wearing a seat belt.  Hale admittedly took her eyes off the road and turned to the backseat to ask the children to quiet down. When she took her eyes off the road, the Bronco veered towards the shoulder of the road, and the rear right wheel left the roadway. She responded by over-correcting to the left, which allegedly led the vehicle to roll over.

Plaintiff, the parent of one of the injured passengers, sued. The case against Ford was based on two product liability claims, one a defective seat belt sleeve claim, and the other, a “handling and stability” design defect claim related to the vehicle's alleged tendency to rollover.  The jury returned a verdict of $16,000,000 in actual damages and $15,000,000 in punitive damages.

The trial court had dismissed the strict liability claim regarding the seat belt on the basis that the sleeve was not defective as a matter of law. But the negligence claim shared with the strict liability claim the element that the product be in a dangerous condition unreasonably dangerous. The trial court should thus have dismissed it too, the supreme court said.

The court also found that the closing argument of Branham's counsel was designed to and likely did inflame and prejudice the jury. The closing argument relied heavily on inadmissible evidence to pump up the punitives claim in requesting that the jury punish Ford.  This closing argument invited the jury to base its verdict on passion rather than reason, and the supreme court found that it denied Ford a fair trial.

But the more interesting part of the case related to Ford's two-fold argument that: (1) Branham failed to prove a reasonable alternative design pursuant to the risk-utility test; and (2) South Carolina law requires a risk-utility test in design defect cases to the exclusion of the consumer expectations test. 

The court found that plaintiff had produced sufficient evidence of a feasible alternative design to get to a jury.  But, while the consumer expectations test may fit well in manufacturing defect cases, the court agreed with Ford that the test is ill-suited in design defect cases. It thus held that the exclusive test in a products liability design case is the risk-utility test, with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design.

The very nature of feasible alternative design evidence entails the manufacturer's decision to employ one design over another. This weighing of costs and benefits attendant to that decision is the essence of the risk-utility test.  The court noted that this approach is in accord with the current Restatement (Third) of Torts.  The court noted that the Third Restatement effectively moved away from the consumer expectations test for design defects, and towards a risk-utility test.  While the feasible alternative design inquiry is the core of the risk-utility balancing test in design defect cases, the court went out of its way to note that a jury question is NOT created merely because a product can be made safer. There is a longstanding principle that a product is not in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous merely because it “can be made more safe.” 

 The court sent the case back for a new trial.

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.

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.

 

State Supreme Court Issues Design Defect Ruling On Intrinsic Characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.