Articles Posted in Product Liability

Late last month, an appellate court in Georgia issued a written opinion affirming a $40 million jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff in a wrongful death case against car-manufacturing giant Chrysler. In the case, the court rejected all of Chrysler’s alleged claims of error, finding that the lower court’s decisions were sound and that the jury’s award amount was not excessive.

Jeep The Facts of the Case

This tragic case involves a young boy who was killed when the car in which he was riding as a rear passenger was struck from behind by another motorist. In 2012, the young boy was with his aunt in her Jeep Grand Cherokee when a pick-up truck rear-ended them. The force from the collision caused the Jeep’s gas tank to rupture. Gas began to leak, and the vehicle caught fire. The boy’s aunt was able to escape the burning vehicle, but she was unable to rescue the young boy in the back seat.

The boy’s parents filed a wrongful death case against Chrysler, the manufacturer of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The parents claimed that the placement of the gas tank was negligent, increasing the chance that it would rupture when the vehicle was struck from behind. Additionally, the parents claimed that Chrysler knew of the dangers associated with the gas tank’s location but continued to manufacture Jeep Grand Cherokees without making any design changes.

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One can easily imagine a world in which a defendant fearful of an upcoming lawsuit destroys internal company documents that the defendant knows may be harmful to its case. This fear of the destruction of evidence in anticipation of litigation gave rise to the doctrine of spoliation. Essentially, the doctrine of spoliation allows for a judge to impose sanctions on a party if they destroy or alter relevant evidence in anticipation of an upcoming case.

TireThere are several sanctions available to a court when it finds that a party has engaged in spoliation. Most commonly, the judge will prevent certain evidence from being admitted. Alternatively, the judge may provide the jury with an instruction regarding the missing evidence and how, if preserved, it would likely disfavor the party that was responsible for its destruction. Moreover, in some extreme circumstances, a court can enter judgment against the spoliating party.

Not all pre-trial destruction of evidence, however, will be considered a violation of the spoliation doctrine. As a recent case illustrates, sometimes a party destroys evidence without thinking about an upcoming case.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently released an opinion affirming a lower court’s decision that summary judgment should be granted in favor of a defendant in a product liability lawsuit. The case stems from a tragic traffic accident that occurred when a passenger died when he was traveling as a passenger in the back of a vehicle.

Road SignAccording to the court’s written opinion, the vehicle crashed into another vehicle and began spinning, colliding with many nearby objects. Unfortunately, a yield sign was one of the objects that was hit, and the stationary base of the sign was forced underneath the vehicle and cut through the fuel tank. At that point, the fuel tank began to leak. The driver and front passenger were able to safely exit the vehicle; however, the three passengers in the back were not able to escape because the doors would not open. As the passengers were trying to escape, the car became engulfed in flames.

The family of the three passengers killed brought a product liability lawsuit against the car’s manufacturer. They claimed that the design of the car’s fuel tank was faulty and that the company should have taken reasonable steps to design and manufacture a gas tank that would not be prone to explosions after this type of accident. The plaintiffs attempted to produce expert testimony, but the defendants successfully moved to exclude the testimony. As a result, it was determined that the plaintiffs did not have sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

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The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently published a decision affirming a jury’s verdict for the defendant in a personal injury and product liability lawsuit that was filed against a retailer by a woman who was injured in a bicycle accident. The woman’s claim, which was ultimately rejected by the jury, was that the defendant sold her a bicycle with defective brakes and should be held accountable for injuries that she suffered shortly after purchasing the bike. Because of the appellate opinion affirming the jury’s verdict, the plaintiff will not be compensated for the injuries she suffered in the accident.

BikeThe Plaintiff Is Injured in a Crash Shortly After Purchasing the Bike from the Defendant

The plaintiff in the case of Applebaum v. Target Corporation is a woman who purchased a bicycle from the defendant and injured her shoulder when she crashed the bike on a hill during her first ride. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the bicycle in question had been previously returned by another customer before the plaintiff bought it, and she alleged that the rear-brake assembly should have been repaired before the bike was sold to her. After her injury, the plaintiff filed a product liability claim against the defendant and the bike’s manufacturer, alleging that her fall was caused by the defective brake assembly that was not properly repaired before she bought the bike.

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Earlier this month, a Pennsylvania appeals court heard and affirmed a $3 million verdict against a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson arising from a product liability case. The lawsuit stemmed from an incident in which a child suffered severe birth injuries after the mother was prescribed and took a migraine medicine during her pregnancy.

White PillsAccording to the court’s decision, the woman was prescribed the medicine while she was pregnant, and her daughter was subsequently born with a bilateral cleft palate and lip. The mother and father claimed that the drug manufacturer was liable for the injuries because they failed to warn the mother’s doctor of the risks associated with taking the medicine, specifically the risk of birth injuries when the medicine is taken early during pregnancy.

At the trial level, the jury found that the company was liable for the injuries. The jury awarded $1.5 million in non-economic damages and $1.5 million to the parents in potential health care costs. The company then went on to appeal the $3 million dollar verdict, claiming that they were unable to change the pregnancy warning level without the permission of the FDA. However, the three judges on the appeals panel disagreed and found that the drug manufacturer still had the duty to warn doctors of the potential risks. The judges held that the manufacturer’s argument did not adequately differentiate between the potential risk that their label implied and the scientifically known risk. The judges also found that the evidence presented showed that the manufacturer knew of the potential risk of specific birth defects, including those that affected the child. The court also found that the manufacturer should have made the risks known to prescribing doctors.

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Over the past 18 months, auto manufacturers have announced numerous recalls, reaching into the millions of vehicles. These recalls have involved a number of issues, ranging from faulty ignition switches to airbags that sporadically deploy without warning. In a recent case brought by a couple who sustained minor injuries in a Saturn Sky, the jury found that although the vehicle was “unreasonably dangerous” because it contained a faulty ignition switch, that was not the cause of the accident, and GM should not be held liable as a result. However, the judge overseeing the trial warned followers not to read too deeply into the jury’s verdict, since it may not be an accurate prediction of how other cases may turn out.

keys-473462_960_720Dangerous Components Make for Dangerous Vehicles

Auto manufacturers have a duty to their customers to make safe vehicles. Of course, despite the best efforts of a manufacturer, a defective part may be included in a vehicle, making it dangerous to drive. Most of the time, when this occurs, a manufacturer will issue a voluntary recall in order to fix all the potentially dangerous vehicles. However, a recall may be issued too late to help all drivers. In these cases, injured motorists may be able to seek compensation for their injuries through a product liability case against the auto manufacturer.

Ignition Switch Claims

Over the past few years, drivers of various GM vehicles have reported problems with the ignition switches installed on the company’s vehicles. When the ignition switch is defective, it can slip out of place and cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. In some cases, drivers have also reported that the vehicle becomes difficult to stop once the switch slips. The defective switches have resulted in hundreds of serious accidents, some fatal.

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Throughout someone’s life, it is very likely that they will be prescribed medication to treat a condition or illness. When a medication is prescribed, it is important that doctors explain the risks and course of treatment to the patient. In many situations, however, doctors do not fully disclose risks and assume that patients will read the lengthy warnings prepared by the pharmaceutical companies that often come attached to their prescriptions.

warning-1191935When an individual has been injured or killed because of a medication side-effect, they will often attribute negligence to the prescribing physician. Treating physicians are often thought to have the primary duty to warn patients of the risks of ingesting certain drugs. In some circumstances, physicians will try to shift responsibility onto the prescription manufacturer.

Many states follow the “learned intermediary” doctrine. This doctrine explains that the prescribing physician acts as the intermediary between the manufacturer and the patient. This means that the manufacturer is supposed to advise the physician of the risks and the physicians should convey these to the patient prior to prescribing them medication. Some steps physicians should take to make sure their patient is aware of all of the risks involve reading the FDA guidelines, reviewing the patient’s medical history to determine any risks, and advising patients of available alternatives.

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Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court released its opinion regarding the applicability of traditional indemnification in the state following a personal injury lawsuit. The case stems from an accident in which a mother was changing her baby’s diaper in a Safeway Grocery store in the state. While the mother was changing her baby, the table fell from the wall due to a defect in the installation. The mother brought a lawsuit against the grocery store, claiming negligence. The mother then went on to amend her complaint to add another defendant – the company that installed the changing station.

diaper-501333_960_720After the personal injury claim was brought, the grocery store filed a cross-claim against the other defendant. They sought indemnification, contribution, and other damages. The grocery store cited an agreement the parties both signed that addressed the indemnification of the grocery store if a situation of this nature were to arise. However, the installation company refused to accept the agreement, citing New Mexico’s anti-indemnification statute. The district court found that as a matter of law, they would not have to pay any damages that were a result of the installation company’s negligence. Ultimately, the case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Court held that the indemnification contract was void and unenforceable.

New Mexico Supreme Court Decision Regarding Indemnification and Comparative Negligence

The court addressed the confusing relationship between traditional indemnification rules and the state’s comparative negligence statute. The court explained that with indemnity, the recovery stems from a contract and enforces duties on the primary wrongdoer. This wrongdoer must address all damages.

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The Supreme Court of Arizona recently released its opinion in a consumer fraud and product liability case brought by a young woman who was diagnosed with drug-induced lupus after taking an acne medication. The young woman was prescribed a specific medication to treat her acne. She did not receive the full packet of information about the drug but did receive some information. The woman used the product for about four months, and then two years later she took it once again for about another four months. Shortly after being prescribed the medication for the second time, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with drug-induced lupus and hepatitis. Evidently, both of these conditions are a side effect from using the medication.

medication-1329267The young woman brought a lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages, claiming that the pharmaceutical company misrepresented and omitted certain important facts in the information it provided to her. The defendants moved to dismiss the case under the “learned intermediary doctrine,” and the lower court agreed to do so.

However, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Arizona reversed that decision. The Supreme Court held that the learned intermediary doctrine does not prevent the plaintiff from suing the company, and the plaintiff alleged enough facts to survive a motion to dismiss.

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Product liability cases are often quite complex because there are usually several parties involved, each of which is likely trying to impute liability to another party. After an individual has been injured by a dangerous product, they may try to bring a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a product. And in certain cases, the law is clear when attributing liability. However, there are many issues that arise in these product liability cases.

ignition-key-1473503One issue that can arise in a product liability case is the notion of “legacy equipment” liability. This theory addresses what a manufacturer’s liability is for older versions of its products, when there have been more recent developments in safety. This is commonly seen when individuals have been injured because of a defective car part that has since been replaced by the manufacturer.

Some states have addressed this issue clearly. However, New Mexico has not specifically implemented a statute to resolve this issue. Two prominent cases, Brooks v. Beech Aircraft and Couch v. Astec, did not directly answer the question. However, the issue was discussed in each of these two opinions. Both of those cases revolved around injuries that could have been prevented with the use of a safety mechanism that was later implemented in subsequent models.

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