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From Products Liability Law Daily, July 8, 2013

Laptop user’s failure to challenge risk-utility findings proves detrimental to her design defect claims

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The manufacturer of a laptop computer was not liable for a user’s burn injuries allegedly caused by the overheating of the laptop’s power cord adapter, the U.S. court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit determined (Ferraro v. Hewlett-Packard Co., July 3, 2013, Wood, D.).

Background. The consumer sustained serious burns on her arm after falling asleep next to the power adapter of her brand-new laptop, manufactured by Hewlett-Packard. According to the complaint, the power adapter slipped from the arm of the sofa upon which the consumer had rested it in order to recharge the laptop and fell between the cushions of the sofa. As the consumer slept, the exposed skin of her right forearm came to rest against one of the adapter’s surfaces. It is unclear how long her skin was in direct contact with the adapter, but she eventually awoke with painful blisters at the point of contact. The consumer brought a products liability action alleging that the power adapter was defectively designed and that the manufacturer failed to include adequate warnings about the power adapter’s propensity to overheat. The trial court concluded that the consumer failed to show that the power adapter was unreasonably dangerous and the consumer appealed, arguing that she met her burden under the consumer-expectations test. The consumer did not contest the trial court’s finding that no reasonable jury could find that the product was defective under the risk-utility test.

Consumer-expectations test. In order to establish a claim for defective design, the consumer was required to show that the power adapter was unreasonably dangerous. Under Illinois law, there are two alternative methods for establishing this element: the consumer-expectations test or the risk-utility test. Application of these two tests could result in conflicting results, in which case, the risk-utility test “trumps” findings based on the consumer-expectations test. The consumer-expectations test required proof that the product “failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner.” The 7th Circuit agreed with the trial court’s finding that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the consumer was not using the power adapter as intended. According to the trial court, falling asleep while using the computer was not the intended use of the power adapter nor was it a reasonably foreseeable use. Although the trial court did admit that the consumer might have been proposing a more limited argument—that an ordinary consumer would not expect that the power adapter would get so hot that it would instantaneously cause a burn—it rejected that argument, explaining that there was no evidence that this is what happened.

Risk-utility test. The trial court also concluded that none of the broad range of factors considered by the courts in determining whether the risk of danger outweighed the benefits of the design of the adapter tipped in favor of the consumer. None of the consumer’s experts presented evidence discussing the feasibility of a design alternative. On the other hand, the manufacturer presented evidence of compliance with relevant regulatory and industry standards and the absence of any history of severe burns associated with the power adapter.

In dicta, the 7th Circuit stated that it was “unfortunate for [the consumer] that we must leave the risk-utility analysis untouched. This is so because it would have taken center stage, given our inclination to agree with [the consumer’s] challenge to the district court’s consumer-expectations analysis.” The appellate court found that the district court’s focus on the fact that falling asleep on the computer was not an intended use of the product was too narrow. The customer was using the power adapter to charge her laptop, which was what it was designed to do. In addition, the trial court’s finding failed to take into account that laptops are designed to be used in comfortable places including sofas, beds, and other places where people may fall asleep while using them. According to the appellate court, a jury could have concluded that the consumer was using the power adapter in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

However, because the consumer did not challenge the trial court’s risk-utility determination, which trumped any finding that consumers expected the product to be safer, the trial court’s decision had to be affirmed.

The case number is: 12-2616.

Attorneys: Christopher J. Goril (Ambrose & Associates) for Ferraro. Anthony A. Agosta (Clark Hill) for Hewlett-Packard Company.

Companies: Hewlett-Packard Company

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