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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 18, 2014

Consumer expectations test trumped risk-utility test in defective design claim against truck seat maker; seat’s designer not subject to strict products liability

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Although the consumer expectations test was the proper test to apply in a strict products liability design defect case brought by an injured pickup truck driver against the designer and the maker of the driver’s seat, the California court of appeal found that the engineering firm which participated in the design of the seat was not subject to strict products liability. In addition to rejecting the defendants’ claim that the risk-utility test should have been applied, the court decided, among other things, that: (1) the driver provided sufficient evidence to support her defective design claim; (2) the component parts doctrine did not apply; (3) the exclusion of expert testimony proffered by the defendants in support of the risk-utility test was proper; and (4) the trial court erred in excluding evidence  that would have allowed the jury to apportion fault among other manufacturers (Romine v Johnson Controls, Inc., March 17, 2014, Mosk, R.).

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Background. Jaklin Romine, the driver of a Nissan Frontier pickup truck, was seriously injured when a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed slammed into a line of vehicles stopped at an intersection, propelling a vehicle into the back of Ronine’s truck. The force of the collision caused the driver’s seatback to collapse, allowing the driver to slide up in the seat and her head to strike the vehicle’s back seat. The driver suffered spinal injuries that rendered her a quadriplegic. Following a trial on the driver’s consumer expectations design defect theory of products liability, the jury returned a verdict in the driver’s favor in the amount of $24,744,764, allocating 20 percent of the fault to Ikeda Engineering Corporation (Ikeda), which participated in the design of her vehicle’s seat, and Vintec Co. (Vintec), which manufactured the truck’s seat. After offsets for settlements with other defendants and an award of costs to the driver, the trial court entered judgment for driver in the amount of $4,606,926.68.

Ikeda and Vintec appealed, contending that: (1) the trial court erred in permitting the driver to try her strict products liability action under the consumer expectations design defect test rather than under the risk/benefit design defect test; (2) the component parts doctrine precluded a finding of strict products liability against defendants; (3) Ikeda, as a provider of engineering services, could not be held strictly liable for a product it designed but did not manufacture, sell, or otherwise place in the stream of commerce; (4) the trial court improperly excluded evidence in connection with the apportionment of fault among other manufacturers; and (5) the trial court erred in permitting plaintiff to introduce evidence of the full amount billed for her past medical care rather than the amount her medical care providers accepted.

Consumer expectations test. The consumer expectations test requires evidence of the “objective conditions of the product” to which the jury is to employ its own sense of whether the product meets ordinary expectations as to its safety under the circumstances presented by the evidence. California case law construing the test to apply in design defect claims in this area, it had been established that a court should not instruct a jury on the consumer expectations test “when the ultimate issue of design defect calls for a careful assessment of feasibility, practicality, risk, and benefit,” because in many instances it was simply impossible to eliminate the balancing or weighing of competing considerations in determining whether a product is defectively designed.

According to the appellate court, the consumer expectations test often is not applicable to cases concerning claims of defects in the design of an automobile because complex technical matters are involved. However, in this case, the court determined that consumers have expectations about whether a vehicle’s driver seat would collapse rearward in a rear-end collision. The court also noted that the collision which caused the driver’s injuries was not as complex as Ikeda and Vintec claimed. Although there were multiple vehicles and multiple collisions involved in the incident, only a single collision caused the driver’s injuries. Rear-end collisions were common and were within the average consumer’s ordinary experience. In addition, consumers do have expectations about whether a vehicle’s driver seat will collapse rearward in a rear-end collision, regardless of the speed of the collision. Furthermore, the fact that causation for the driver’s injuries was proven through extensive expert testimony did not mean that an ordinary consumer would be unable to form assumptions about the truck’s safety.

Having determined that application of the consumer expectations test was appropriate in this case, the court went on to determine that the driver provided sufficient evidence concerning her use of the product, the circumstances of the accident, and the objective features of her car seat that were relevant to an evaluation of its safety, as required under the test. The court rejected Ikeda’s and Vintec’s argument that the driver was required to produce evidence in the form of advertising or marketing literature, vehicle manuals, or consumer test reports to demonstrate an ordinary consumer’s expectations of how the truck’s seat would perform if the vehicle was struck from behind.

Risk-benefit test testimony. Because the appellate court determined that the trial court properly permitted the driver to proceed on the consumer expectations test, there was no error in excluding Ikeda’s and Vintec’s expert evidence on the risks and benefits of the truck’s seat design, that the truck’s manufacturer had provided the strength specifications for the seat, and that the truck’s manufacturer had tested the driver’s seat and the seat met all of Nissan’s safety specifications. Case law established that in cases in which the consumer expectations test is appropriate, manufacturers could not defend a claim that a product’s design failed to perform as safely as its ordinary consumers would expect by presenting expert evidence of the design’s relative risks and benefits.

Component parts doctrine. The court further determined that the component parts doctrine as advanced by Ikeda and Vintec did not apply in this case. The defense provides that a manufacturer or supplier of a component part is not liable for injuries caused by the finished product into which the component has been incorporated unless the component itself was defective and caused harm. The doctrine applies only to generic or off-the-shelf components as opposed to those which are a separate product with a specific purpose and use. According to the court, the driver’s seat was not a component part, but instead was a separate product with a specific purpose and use—it was designed and manufactured to be used in the Nissan Frontier.

Engineering services provider liability. The court of appeal did agree with the contention that Ikeda could not be held strictly liable for its role in designing the seat. Engineers who did not participate in bringing a product to market but simply designed a product were not subject to strict liability. Ikeda rendered a professional service and could be held liable for defects in the seat only on theories of negligence or intentional misconduct.

Allocation of fault. The court did agree with the argument proffered by Ikeda and Vintec that the trial court erred in excluding v. including the maker of the truck and the makers of components other than the seat. The trial court had limited apportionment to all of those in the chain of distribution as being vicariously liable under joint and several liability, and the driver who started the chain reaction incident. Under the doctrine of strict products liability, all defendants in the chain of distribution are jointly and severally liable to the plaintiff for all damages caused by the defective product. However, courts have permitted comparative fault in certain situations.

Against, this backdrop, the court analyzed California’s Proposition 51 and the split of authority as to whether it should apply to strict products liability actions. In non-strict products liability cases to which Proposition 51 applies, it is error for a trial court not to allow the jury to assess the comparative fault of defendants who settled before trial and to exclude evidence of the culpability of those defendants to allow the jury to make that assessment. Previous California decisions have determined that Proposition 51 does not apply in a strict products liability action when a single defective product produced a single injury to the plaintiff while other decisions have concluded that in strict products liability asbestos exposure actions, that Proposition 51 applies when there are multiple products that caused the plaintiff’s injuries and there is evidence that provides a basis to allocate fault for noneconomic damages between the defective products.

Finding that this case was not covered by either result, the court sided with the decisions allowing for application of Proposition 51 in strict products liability cases on the ground  that the perceived evil to be eliminated by Proposition 51— the imposition of liability for noneconomic damages far out of proportion to the defendant’s share of responsibility for those damages—applied equally to strict liability cases and negligence claims. Because the trial court ruled that defendants could not present evidence in support of its theory that liability should be apportioned among Nissan and the other parts manufacturers, the court of appeal remanded the case for a new trial on this issue alone, noting that liability could not be retried and that Ikeda could be found at fault for the driver’s injuries and assigned a proportionate share of plaintiff’s noneconomic damages, but not on a strict products liability theory.

Calculation of medical expenses. Finally, the court determined that although the admission of evidence of the full amount billed for driver’s medical care was error, Ikeda and Vintec failed to show that the error was prejudicial. Ikeda and Vintec had argued, and the court agreed, that only evidence of the amount the driver’s medical providers accepted as full payment should have been admitted. However, there was no evidence before the jury or any argument offered by the driver’s counsel that the driver’s claims for noneconomic damages or future medical expenses were based on or influenced by the stipulation that the driver’s medical bills for past medical care totaled $777,905. In fact, with regard to the past full amount of the driver’s medical care bills, the jury’s award of $777,905 was reduced post-verdict on stipulation of the parties to $462,608.68, the amount that plaintiff’s medical care providers accepted.

The case number is B239761.

Attorneys: Brian Doster Chase (Bisnar & Chase LLP) for Jaklin Mikhal Romine. Margaret M. Grignon (Reed Smith LLP) for Johnson Controls, Inc. and Hoover Universal, Inc.

Companies: Johnson Controls, Inc.; Hoover Universal, Inc.; Ikeda Engineering Corp.; Vintec Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews SCLIssuesNews ExpertEvidenceNews DamagesNews DefensesLiabilityNews EvidentiaryNews MotorEquipmentNews CaliforniaNews

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