Weekly Law Resume: Torts – Product Liability – Consumer Expectation Test

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Jaklin Mikhal Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc. et al.

Court Of Appeal, Second District (March 17, 2014)

Product liability cases can involve complex mechanisms of injury, and multiple design and manufacturing defendants. In this case, the Court of Appeal addressed a matter where defendants claimed a products liability case should have been tried under a risk/benefit test instead of a consumer expectations test. The Court of Appeal also addressed exposure of engineering service providers under strict liability, and allocation of liability among multiple defendants, some of whom had settled or were dismissed and did not participate at trial.

In this case, plaintiff Jaklin Romine was occupying a Nissan Frontier pickup truck and stopped at a red light when a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed slammed into a line of vehicles, propelling a vehicle into the back of her truck. The force of the collision caused plaintiff’s seatback to collapse and plaintiff to slide up the seat. Plaintiff’s head struck her vehicle’s back seat, and she suffered spinal injuries that rendered her a quadriplegic.

Plaintiff sued various persons and entities, settling with a number of them prior to trial. Trial proceeded under a product defect consumer expectations test against Ikeda Engineering Corporation (“Ikeda”), which participated in the design of her vehicle’s seat, and Vintec Co. (“Vintec”), which manufactured her vehicle’s seat. She obtained a verdict in her favor, which after adjustments and offsets, totaled $4,606,926.68.

On appeal, the defendants contended that the trial court erred in permitting plaintiff to try her product defect claim under the consumer expectations test rather than the risk/benefit test. The defendants argued that the consumer expectations test may not be used to evaluate the performance of the design of the seat and restraint system in this forceful multi-vehicle car incident, essentially arguing that consumers could not formulate an expectation of the performance of these components under those conditions without expert guidance. Defendants argued that the risk/benefit test was proper, which asks whether the benefits of the
challenged design outweigh the risk of danger inherent in the design and frequently involves substantial expert testimony.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. The Court noted that the consumer expectations test is reserved for cases in which the everyday experience of the product’s users permits a conclusion that the product’s design violated minimum safety assumptions, and is ‘defective regardless of expert opinion about the merits of the design. Despite defendants’ arguments about the complexity of the components and mechanism of plaintiff’s seat failure, the court found that, simply put, consumers have expectations about whether a vehicle’s driver seat will collapse rearward in a rear-end collision, citing the Illinois case Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co. 901 N.E.2d 329, 352 (Ill. 2008) (“Mikolajczyk”), which had a similar fact pattern of a collapsing seat back. In Mikolajczyk, the Illinois Supreme Court held, in part, that the jury was properly instructed on the consumer expectations test, and that rear-end collisions are reasonably foreseeable and the ordinary consumer would likely expect that a seat would not collapse rearward in such an accident, allowing the occupant to sustain massive head injury. The Court of Appeal distinguished Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548 where in an accident, a left wheel broke free, collapsing rearward, and smashing the floorboard into the person’s feet, noting that court’s finding that this “was one of technical and mechanical detail.” Thus, the Court of Appeal agreed that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury under the consumer expectations test.

Another issue raised by the defendants was the liability of engineers under strict products liability for those engineering services. The parties agreed that by participating in the design of the Frontier’s seat, Ikeda provided engineering services only. On appeal, Ikeda argued that it may not be held strictly liable for a product it designed or engineered but did not manufacture, sell, or otherwise place in the stream of commerce. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding that engineers who do not participate in bringing a product to market and simply design a product are not subject to strict products liability.

The defendants also contended that the trial court erred in excluding evidence that would have allowed the jury to apportion fault among Nissan and the component part manufacturers that settled or were dismissed before trial.  The trial court had ruled that Nissan and the component manufacturers were jointly and severally liable, and the only comparative liability the jury would be aware of was as between the drivers of the other cars. The Court of Appeal disagreed, noting that under Proposition 51, when applicable, it was error for the trial court not to allow the jury to assess the comparative fault of defendants who settled before trial. Here, the court’s special verdict form erroneously only provided for apportionment as between the negligent driver and defendants.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the jury’s findings that defendants, except Ikeda, were liable and for the amount determined. It remanded the matter for retrial solely on the issue of apportionment of fault. Ikeda may still be found at fault and assigned a proportionate share of plaintiff’s non-economic damages, but not on a strict products liability theory.

COMMENT

Product manufacturers may find that the consumer expectations test is quite broad where it can be argued that the underlying consumer has an expectation that it will resist failure due to familiarity and use of the product.

For a copy of the complete decision, see:
http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B239761.PDF

 

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