XXI. Products Liability: Design Defect and Warning | Samantha Bates | April 25, 2017


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XXI. Products Liability: Design Defect and Warning

Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates Show/Hide

Manufacturing defect cases can be straightforward: there’s an intended design, and then a variance that happens to make the product more dangerous, and the danger then materializes. But what if the design itself should be flawed?

At least two approaches have emerged by which to judge a product’s design. The first, grounded in traditional warranty doctrine, asks whether consumer expectations are met by the product. The second, founded in traditional negligence doctrine, asks whether the product’s design well balances risks and benefits. Our cases show instances in which a product might pass one test and not the other — and thus shows the plaintiff and defendant inheriting the other’s position from one case to another as to which test is to be preferred. In many jurisdictions, both tests might be available, with the circumstances of the case dictating which of the two tests will be applied.


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    1. 1.1 Show/Hide More Soule v. General Motors Corp.--"The Crumpling Toe Plate"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      When identifying possible design defects, should courts use tests other than the “consumer expectation” test? If so, under what circumstances would the alternative test be appropriate?
      Plaintiff got into a car accident while driving a car manufactured by the defendant. During the accident, the force of impact caused the “toe plate” beneath the plaintiff's feet to crumple up and fracture her ankles. The plaintiff sued on the theory that defendant had defectively designed the toe plate, thereby ‘enhancing' the damages she would otherwise suffered in a car accident. After the plaintiff won at the trial level, defendant appealed the case on the grounds that the trial court had erroneously instructed the jury on the “consumer expectation” test, with regard to the alleged design defect.
    2. 1.2 Show/Hide More Camacho v. Honda Motor Co.--"The Motorcycle without Crash Bars"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      When applying a “reasonably safe” test, what factors should courts consider to determine whether a product design is reasonably safe?
      Plaintiff collided into an automobile while riding a motorcycle manufactured and designed by the defendant. Consequently, the plaintiff suffered serious leg injuries. The evidence suggested that the plaintiff's leg injuries would have been mitigated or avoided completely had the defendant incorporated “crash bars” into the design of the motorcycle. The plaintiff sued for the alleged design defect, along with an alleged failure to warn buyers of the existence of injury-mitigating crash bars.
    3. 1.3 Show/Hide More Linegar v. Armour of America, Inc.--"The Incomplete Bulletproof Vest"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Should the “reasonably safe” test require manufacturers to only sell products that have the safest design possible?
      Plaintiffs are the surviving mother and child of a police officer killed in the line of duty. The decedent was shot to death while wearing a bulletproof vest manufactured and designed by the defendant. However, the evidence showed that all the bullets that hit the vest did not penetrate; the decedent was killed by a bullet which entered his body through the visibly unarmored sides of the vest. There was also evidence that the defendant sold other vest models which did shield the sides of the wearer.
    4. 1.4 Show/Hide More Hood v. Ryobi America Corp.--"The Saw with Removed Bladeguards"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Should courts hold warning labels to be defective if they fail to include all the possible consequences of failure to heed the label? Should manufacturers have to accommodate foreseeable misuse when they design their products?
      Plaintiff purchased a miter saw that was manufactured by the defendant. Despite the presence of seven warning labels in the operator's manual and on the saw itself, not to operate the saw with the blade guards removed, the plaintiff removed the guards in order to cut more deeply into a piece of wood. Shortly after removing the guards and continuing to run the saw, the spinning saw blade flew off the saw and injured the plaintiff. The plaintiff admitted reading the warning labels, but argued that the labels did not inform him of the risk of the saw flying off if the blade guards were removed. A similar incident had led to a prior lawsuit against the defendant, nearly two decades before the present events.
    5. 1.5 Show/Hide More Medina v Louisville Ladder, Inc.--“The Monolingual Installation Instructions”
      Original Creator: Samantha Bates
      Do manufacturers owe a duty to provide bilingual installation instructions when they know that a considerable percentage of their consumer base only speaks Spanish?
      The plaintiff purchased a ladder that came with installation instructions written in English. Because the plaintiff could only read Spanish, he installed the ladder incorrectly and later suffered an elbow injury when the ladder collapsed beneath him. The plaintiff argued that the manufacturer owed a duty to provide Spanish as well as English installation instructions because a large number of its customers were Hispanic and could only read Spanish.

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July 24, 2017

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Samantha Bates

Research Associate

Harvard Law School, Berkman Center

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