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.