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Florida Product Liability Injuries and Safer Alternative Design

If you are injured by a product – whether it’s a defective vehicle or a faulty power tool – proving the manufacturer (or anyone in the chain of distribution) liable involves (per the Third Restatement of Torts) the existence of alternative design the main test to ascertain whether a product is defective. This provision holds that a product is defective in design only when the foreseeable risk of harm posed by that product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller. 

However, many states have been highly critical of this test, and Florida is one of those places wherein it’s been explicitly rejected. In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court in the 68-page ruling of Aubin v. Union Carbide Corpheld that it would retain the approach of the Second Restatement of Torts (which does not place this additional burden on consumers). The court ruled that in some instances in strict liability claims, the Third Restatement might shield manufacturers from all liability for products that are unreasonably dangerous simply because an alternative design for that product might be unavailable – even when, in some cases, the product may be in defective condition that’s unreasonably dangerous to the user. Further, the Third Restatement runs contrary to case law precedent set in this state, the court held.

However, federal courts often still use this test (though state law may still be applied). But as a recent case before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals shows, there is still opportunity to prevail. 

In the case of Nester v. Textron, Inc., the appellate court affirmed a $16 million damage award against the manufacturer of an allegedly defective utility vehicle. The vehicle was unmanned when a bag of cattle feed fell on the accelerator, causing the vehicle to run over plaintiff while she worked on her family’s farm, resulting in severe and permanent personal injuries, rendering her quadriplegic.

Plaintiffs (the woman and her husband) filed claims against defendant manufacturer for defective design, defective marketing and gross negligence (for punitive damages). The design defect claim alleged that the pedal configuration – in particular, the link between the parking brake and the accelerator – created an unreasonable risk of unintended acceleration.

At trial, plaintiffs asserted four potentially safer alternative designs of this utility vehicle. They argued first that if the manufacturer had removed the link between the accelerator and the parking brake, it would cause the brake to remain engaged even if something struck the accelerator. Alternatively, they argued the vehicle maker could have installed a pedal guard that would have stopped objects from falling onto the pedal. They also suggested a possible weight-sensitive switch that would turn the engine off when the operator was no longer in the driver’s seat. Finally, they suggested that a hand-operated, second parking brake could stop future accidents.

Defendant had a counterargument for each of these alternatives, and after closing arguments, sought judgment in its favor as a matter of law – a motion that was rejected. Jurors decided the case in favor of plaintiffs, but only on the design defect claim. They also apportioned plaintiff 50 percent comparative fault, awarding $16 million in pre-apportionment damages (meaning they would ultimately collect about $8 million).

Defendant appealed seeking a reversal or a new trial, arguing the jury didn’t hear an accurate definition of “safer alternative design,” that the trial court erred in refusing to bifurcate the trial (one trial for liability and another for damages) and that two key pieces of evidence were incorrectly admitted. Specifically with regard to safer alternative design, defendant argued plaintiff had not shown (as prior Texas case law precedent had set) sufficient evidence that the safer alternative design would have been safer and prevented or significantly reduced the risk of injury, would not have been less safe in other circumstances (increasing the risks to other uses), wouldn’t have substantially impaired the product’s utility and was technologically and economically feasible at the time.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed. Specifically with regard to the safer alternative design, the appellate panel rejected defendant’s argument that failure to give a more expansive definition was an error by the trial court. The instruction given, the appellate court ruled, was from a standard state jury instruction.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Nester v. Textron, Inc., April 18, 2018, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Driverless Vehicles Legal in Florida, Liability Questions Arise, April 29, 2018, Orlando Injury Attorney Blog

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