Product liability issues are mainly grounded in seldom-changing legal doctrines. However, manufacturers everywhere need to be aware of three relatively recent court rulings should they find themselves facing litigation in Minnesota, says product liability/mass tort attorney Cort Sylvester of Nilan Johnson Lewis in Minneapolis. First, in its 4-3 decision in Montemayor v. Sebright Products, Inc., a case involving a workplace equipment accident that led to injury, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff despite compelling evidence that the plaintiff and employer were at fault. The majority opinion stressed that all “close cases” should be left for the jury to decide which parties bear liability. This decision sets a high bar for manufacturers who wish to prove that other parties should be solely liable for injuries. Secondly, in Great N. Ins. Co. v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., the Minnesota Supreme Court adopted for the first time the “Restatement (Third) of Torts” as the standard for imposing a post-sale duty to warn. While the court decided the specific manufacturer involved in the case had no such duty, the new legal test provides a roadmap for when manufacturers must reach out to past customers and clarifies the status of some defenses asserted against post-sale warning claims.
Lastly, in Conda v. Honeywell International, Inc. – a dispute involving asbestos exposure in which the lower courts assigned fault and damages to not only the defendant company but the plaintiff’s previous employer – the Minnesota Court of Appeals found that older versions of Minnesota’s Comparative Fault Statute apply when the exposures occurred decades ago, making the manufacturer financially responsible for not only its own fault, but also half of the employer’s. The court also held that a verdict can be supported by expert testimony that almost any small amount of exposure to asbestos can be a “substantial” contributing factor to injury. “The question of finding and allocating fault is already complicated, and these rulings increase the care legal counsel must take in their approach to defending product liability litigation in Minnesota,” says Sylvester.