Design Defect Claim Rejected for Lack of Cost Estimate on Alternative Design

A federal court in Texas recently rejected design defect claims in a product liability case when plaintiff failed to offer a required cost estimate for the proposed alternative design. See Flynn, et al v. American Honda Motor Co. Inc., et al, No. 4:11-cv-3908 (S.D. Tex. 2015).

Plaintiff was involved in a fatal a collision with a Chevrolet truck. Ms. Flynn’s airbags deployed but, as alleged in the complaint, supposedly only after a delay.  Her parents brought this suit to recover damages resulting from the allegedly defective airbag system.  In the three years since this suit was filed, the parties had engaged in extensive discovery, including investigations by and depositions of numerous expert witnesses. Honda moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ claims of a design defect under theories of strict liability, breach of warranty, and negligence.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is warranted if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–23 (1986). Importantly, “the mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat a motion for summary judgment; Rule 56 requires that the fact dispute be genuine and material.” Willis v. Roche Biomed. Lab., 61 F.3d 313, 315 (5th Cir.1995). Material facts are those whose resolution “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Id. A court may consider any evidence in the record, “including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). “However, neither conclusory allegations nor hearsay, unsubstantiated assertions, or unsupported speculation will suffice to create or negate a genuine issue of fact.” Neal v. City of Hempstead, Tex., No. 4:12-CV-1733, 2014 WL 3907770, at *1 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 11, 2014).

Texas products liability law recognizes three kinds of product defects that will give rise to an actionable claim: manufacturing defects, design defects, and marketing defects. Temple EasTex, Inc. v. Old Orchard Creek Partners, Ltd., 848 S.W.2d 724, 732 (Tex. App. 1992), writ denied, (Sept. 29, 1993). Liability for personal injuries caused by a product's defective design can be imposed under several underlying legal theories, among them negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability. The requisite proof for recovery on a design defect claim was prescribed by statute in 1993 and made the same for any legal theory asserted.” Hyundai Motor Co. v. Rodriguez ex rel. Rodriguez, 995 S.W.2d 661, 664 (Tex. 1999). To prevail on his design defect claim, 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.” Casey v. Toyota Motor Eng'g & Mfg. N. Am., Inc., 770 F.3d 322, 330 (5th Cir. 2014).

Texas law defines “safer alternate design” as a product design other than the one actually used, that in reasonable probability:

(1) would have prevented or significantly reduced the risk of the plaintiff's personal injury, property damage, or death without substantially impairing the product's utility; and
(2) was economically and technologically feasible at the time the product left the control of the manufacturer or seller by the application of existing or reasonably achievable scientific knowledge.
TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 82.005(b). See also Casey, 770 F.3d at 331; Hodges v. Mack
Trucks, Inc., 474 F.3d 188, 196 (5th Cir. 2006).

Honda argued that summary judgment was appropriate because plaintiffs did not present such evidence of a safer alternative design -- instead offering an algorithm that was a generalized concept for a design, which is insufficient under Texas law. Honda used one algorithm and Plaintiffs proposed that a different one – an algorithm patented by Plaintiffs’ expert – should have been used instead. The question of whether an algorithm and its alleged fit to a particular vehicle can constitute a safer alternative design was, the court said, one it need not consider here because, in an event, of Plaintiffs’ failure to provide evidence of economic feasibility. By definition, a safer alternative design must be reasonably probable to be economically feasible at the time the product left control of the manufacturer. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 82.005(b)(2). “To establish economic feasibility, the plaintiff must introduce proof of the ‘cost of incorporating [the] technology.’” Casey, 770 F.3d at 334 (citing Honda of Am. Mfg., Inc. v. Norman, 104 S.W.3d 600, 607 (Tex.Ct.App.2003)). “To prove economic feasibility where the product is not yet in use, courts generally require a party to present evidence of either an estimate or range of the cost of the alternative design.” Casey, 770 F.3d at 335 (citing Brochtrup v. Mercury Marine, 426 Fed.Appx. 335, 339 (5th Cir.2011) (concluding that testimony from builder of alternative design that building cost was $400 was sufficient evidence of economic feasibility to avoid judgment as a matter of law); A.O. Smith Corp. v. Settlement Inv. Mgmt., No. 2–04–270–CV, 2006 WL 176815, at *3–4 (Tex. Ct. App. Jan. 26, 2006) (concluding that detailed testimony about how proposed alternative design would add between $5 and $200 per unit was some evidence of economic feasibility). 

In this case, Plaintiffs presented no evidence of either an estimate or a range of the cost of implementing their expert's alternative algorithm. Specifically, the expert report and deposition transcript offered no such calculation, and thus the court found summary judgment appropriate for Honda on Plaintiff’s design defect claim.

 

 

Class Discovery Sufficient for Merits Summary Judgment

Readers know that courts will sometimes, perhaps often, bifurcate discovery in a proposed class action between the discovery needed to assess certification issues and that related to merits issues. This procedural tool can save the parties costs, and expedite the crucial decision on class status, which needs to be made as soon as practicable.

Sometimes that class discovery can shed light on summary judgement issues as well.  In a recent case, the Eighth Circuit held that a class plaintiff was not entitled to merits discovery before the court considered summary judgment based solely on the class certification discovery.  See Toben v. Bridgestone Retail Operations, LLC,  No. 13-3329 (8th Cir. 5/13/14).

Patricia Toben filed a putative class action alleging a violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA).  Plaintiff alleged on behalf of the proposed class that defendant's service shop improperly charged 6 percent of labor charges as a shop supply fee. Defendant responded that the supply fee covered a wide array of essential stuff, such as cleaners and rags. Specifically, Bridgestone identified over 70 examples of shop supplies covered by the fee.

After limited discovery, Toben moved for class certification. Bridgestone moved for summary judgment. Toben moved to stay summary judgment pending merits discovery. The district court denied the stay and granted summary judgment.  Plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals noted that plaintiff had set forth some kinds of facts she hoped to elicit from further discovery, but had not shown that the facts sought exist.  It is well settled that Rule 56 does not condone a fishing expedition where a plaintiff merely hopes to uncover some possible evidence. Mere speculation that there is some relevant evidence not yet discovered will never suffice.  Here, class discovery revealed relevant information about the shop supply fee, and plaintiff identified no documents or specific facts she believed would contradict that.

If all one had to do to obtain a grant of a Rule 56d motion were to allege possession by movant of certain information, every summary judgment decision would have to be delayed while the non-movant goes fishing in the movant's files.  Plaintiff's motion for a stay provided only "speculative hope" of finding evidence to support her claim.

Thus, the court could not conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying it. Summary judgment affirmed.