Articles Posted in Dangerous Products

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a written opinion in a product liability lawsuit brought against tire manufacturing giant Goodyear. While the Supreme Court’s decision reversed a $2.7 million fine assessed by the lower court, the Court ordered the lower court to recalculate the figure.

The Pre-Trial Discovery Process

After a lawsuit is filed, but before the case is heard by a jury, the parties go through the discovery process, in which each side exchanges documents, witness lists, and other potential evidence. As a general rule, a party must disclose all requested relevant evidence to opposing counsel, even if that evidence may be detrimental to the party’s case. A party’s failure to comply with a discovery request may result in sanctions imposed by the court.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs owned a motor home that was equipped with Goodyear tires. While the plaintiffs were driving the motor home on the highway, a tire blew out, sending the motor home off the road. The motor home flipped over, and several plaintiffs on board were injured. The plaintiffs filed a product liability claim against Goodyear, arguing that the tire was defective because it was not designed to operate at highway speeds.

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Earlier last month, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in a product liability case, originally arising out of Illinois, claiming that the manufacturer of the “Goof Off” brand cleaner should be liable for injuries a consumer sustained while using the product. In the case, Suarez v. W.M. Barr & Co., the appellate court allowed several of the plaintiff’s claims to continue toward trial, finding that the plaintiff presented enough evidence for a jury to potentially find in his favor.

The Facts of the Case

Suarez was using “Goof Off” brand cleaner to clean his basement floor. Suarez read the label and followed the instructions. One of the steps listed on the product’s label instructed those intending to use the product to clean floors to spread the product across the floor with a broom. Suarez used a broom to spread the cleaner across the floor in his basement, but as he was doing so, the cleaner caught fire. Suarez was seriously injured in the fire and filed this product liability lawsuit, seeking compensation for his injuries.

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Earlier this month, a federal court of appeals issued an opinion in a product liability case involving an employee who was injured while on the job by a piece of falling scaffolding. In the case, Schaefer v. Universal Scaffolding, the court had to decide what to do with the plaintiff’s claim that the defendant intentionally lost or destroyed the very piece of scaffolding that caused his injuries. Ultimately, the court upheld the plaintiff’s right to seek compensation for his injuries by holding that the lower court applied an improper standard when dismissing the plaintiff’s case.

The Facts

Schaefer was employed by Brand Energy, a construction company. Brand Energy was contracted by Dynery to complete work on a power plant. Universal Scaffolding manufactured the scaffolding that Brand Energy used on the job, but Dynergy purchased the scaffolding. Employees of Brand had difficulty assembling the scaffolding because it kept coming apart at the joints. Schaefer was walking below some of the scaffolding when he was struck on the head by a piece that had come loose. He filed a product liability claim against Universal Scaffolding, as well as related claims against Brand Energy and Dynergy. Relevant to this discussion is Schaefer’s claim against Universal Scaffolding.

Before trial, Universal Scaffolding told Schaefer and his attorneys that they no longer had the piece of scaffolding that had fallen and allegedly caused his injuries. Schaefer asked the court to impose sanctions against Universal Scaffolding for failing to preserve the material and relevant evidence. However, the trial court determined that, although Schaefer could not succeed without the evidence, he did not show that he would have succeeded at trial with the evidence, and the case was dismissed.

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an interesting opinion in a product liability case involving a plaintiff’s claim against an auto maker that the soft-top convertible she was operating during a rollover accident failed to protect her from injury. The case, Holiday Motor Corporation v. Walters, was ultimately decided in favor of the defendant auto maker because the court determined that there was no legal duty to create a soft-top convertible that was capable of withstanding the force of a rollover accident.

The Facts of the Case

Walters, the plaintiff, was driving her 1995 Mazda Miata. The car was a soft-top convertible. She was driving it on a two-lane highway behind a pick-up truck when she noticed a large object fall off the back of the truck. She swerved to avoid hitting the object and ended up rolling the vehicle.

When the car came to a stop, it was upside down and partially leaning against a tree. The roof of the convertible had caved in, and as a result Walters sustained serious back and neck injuries. She filed a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the vehicle. The argument she made was that the auto maker’s failure to manufacture the soft-top so that it would protect the occupants of the vehicle was a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.

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Proving a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of a dangerous product is not always as easy as explaining how a product caused an injury. For example, depending on the type of claim being asserted, a plaintiff may need to present actual evidence that the product was defective, was poorly designed, or presented an unreasonable risk of injury. In fact, all personal injury cases have certain elements that must be proven. If a party fails to provide evidence tending to prove each of the elements of their claim, the judge must dismiss the case upon the defendant’s motion. This is exactly what happened to one family’s product liability case against a smoke detector manufacturer.

Hosford v. BRK Brands, Inc.

The plaintiffs were the surviving family members of a young girl who died when her family’s mobile home caught fire. According to the court’s written opinion, the girl’s parents had installed two of the defendant’s smoke detectors in the mobile home. On the night of the tragedy, an electrical malfunction started a slow smoldering fire in the mobile home. The girl’s parents awoke to one of the smoke detectors, but the fire had already overtaken the home, and it was too late for them to save their daughter.

The family filed a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the smoke detectors. The plaintiffs made several claims, the most relevant of which claimed that the smoke alarms were defective at detecting the slow smoldering fire and did not go off with enough time to allow them to safely evacuate their home. After a trial, the jury determined that the manufacturer was not liable, and the plaintiff appealed.

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In a recent case, a woman bought a mountain bike from Target that she claimed had been previously returned. After riding the bike for just a few minutes, she fell off the bike at the bottom of a hill, injuring her shoulder. A bystander came over and showed her that the rear brakes had tightened on the back tire, releasing the brakes and causing her to fall. The woman claimed that a brake had been defective and had been repaired before it was resold to her. She claimed that she then returned the bike and left it at Target. Target claimed that it did not have the bike, and it had not been located. The bike was never located.

The woman sued Target for selling her a bike with defective brakes. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury found in favor of Target. On appeal, the woman argued that the jury’s decision was “against the weight of the evidence.” She claimed that no reasonable jury could have reached that decision and that a new trial was warranted.

The court explained that while there was evidence that supported the woman’s version of events, there was also evidence supporting Target’s version of events. For example, she testified that she had bought the bike used and that an employee told her that it had been sent back due to a malfunctioning brake. On the other hand, Target’s employee testified that he took the bike from an area containing bikes for sale, rather than from those kept for repair. The woman also said that the bike had cardboard and plastic on it, which an employee testified are only kept on brand new bikes. Thus, while the jury could reasonably have found in favor of the woman, the jury could also reasonably have found in favor of Target. For these reasons, the verdict remained in place.

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Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of merchandise all have a duty to ensure the goods in which they are dealing meet certain safety standards. If a dangerously made product, or a malfunctioning product, causes an injury to a buyer, that person may be able to seek compensation for their injuries through a product liability lawsuit.

Product liability lawsuits vary in terms of what must be proven. However, the essence of all product liability claims is the same; a dangerous product caused an injury to someone. As is the case with most other theories of liability, there are some defenses to a product liability lawsuit of which plaintiffs should be aware. In a recent case in front of a federal appeals court, the “optional equipment doctrine” was discussed, adopted, and applied.

The Optional Equipment Doctrine

In the case, Parks v. Ariens, the court determined that a lawnmower manufacturer was not liable under a product liability theory when it sold a ride-on lawnmower without a roll-cage or seatbelt. The plaintiff in the case was the surviving spouse of a man who had died when the lawnmower he purchased rolled and trapped him underneath. The man’s widow filed a product liability lawsuit against the lawnmower manufacturer, arguing that it should be responsible for her husband’s death because it was negligent to sell the lawnmower without the roll-cage or seatbelt.

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Punitive damages are awards paid to a plaintiff exclusively for the purpose of punishing a defendant above and beyond paying for the financial costs and other harms suffered by the plaintiff. These damages are often awarded to prevent the specific defendant, or others who may be in a similar or analogous position, from repeating the type of behavior that led to the award of punitive damages.

Juries may be given the option to award punitive damages in certain personal injury, wrongful death, and medical malpractice cases when a plaintiff alleges that the defendant committed especially reprehensible behavior in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. For punitive damages to be awarded in these cases, a defendant must have not only been negligent but also behaved in a manner that warrants the additional punishment. These damages are rare but are not unheard of in certain types of cases.

Covering Up Knowledge of a Dangerous Product and Continuing to Market the Product Can Result in Punitive Damages

An example of the types of behaviors that justify punitive damages is illustrated by a recent jury verdict reached against the well-known health care products company Johnson & Johnson. A news article discussing the verdict explains that the jury found that Johnson & Johnson not only marketed a dangerous talc-based powder for women to use as a feminine care product, but also knew there was a high likelihood that the use of such powder on or near a woman’s genitals could result in ovarian cancer. The jury agreed that despite their knowledge of these risks, the company continued to market the product to women.

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The Supreme Court of California recently released a ruling that affirmed a verdict for the defendant in a lawsuit filed against a vehicle manufacturer that had not included electronic traction control on a standard model truck that was being driven by the plaintiff when he was involved in a crash. The plaintiff in the case of Kim v. Toyota Motors was in a crash, and he claimed that it would have been prevented by an electronic traction control (or ESC) system that was included on more expensive models of Toyota trucks but not the standard model involved in the accident. The plaintiff argued that the manufacturer’s failure to include the option on the truck he was driving constituted a design defect, and he requested damages as a result.

The Plaintiff’s Allegation that ESC Would Have Prevented His Injuries

In April 2010, the plaintiff was driving a 2005 Toyota Tundra on a two-way road in California when he claims that he was forced to drive into the gravel median to avoid crashing into an oncoming driver who had entered his lane. According to the Court’s recitation of the facts, the plaintiff lost traction and oversteered the vehicle after entering the gravel median, eventually losing control and rolling the vehicle into an embankment. The plaintiff suffered serious injuries in the crash.

While presenting the case, the plaintiff argued that Toyota was able to include traction control on the vehicle involved, and if there were a traction control system included on his vehicle, he would have avoided the accident and injuries that were suffered.

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