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Hughes v. Magic Chef, Inc

    Brief Fact Summary. The Polk District Court (Iowa) entered judgment for Magic Chef, Inc. (Defendant) in a strict products liability action and overruled Plaintiffs’ Motion for a New Trial. Plaintiffs, husband and his wife, challenged the decision.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Misuse is not an affirmative defense in a products liability action but is an element of the plaintiff’s own case in which he must establish, by a preponderance of the evidence that the manner in which the product was used was foreseeable to the manufacturer.

    Facts. Plaintiff was seriously burned when a stove made by the manufacturer exploded after the propane tank was refilled. The pilot lights on the stovetop were re-lit, but a pilot light in the oven’s cavity was not. Propane built up within the stove, resulting in the ensuing explosion. The injured husband and his wife brought an action against the manufacturer based on strict product liability. The jury found for the manufacturer, and the trial court overruled the injured party’s Motion for a New Trial.

    Issue. Did the trial court in its instruction to the jury that misuse was an affirmative defense?

    Held. Yes. The court reversed the lower trial court’s decision, holding that misuse of a product was no longer a defense in products liability actions, and on retrial, the burden was on the injured husband to establish that the use made of the stove was reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer. Thus, the injured husband and his wife’s Motion for a New Trial should have been sustained.

    Discussion. As a general rule, the manufacturer of any product capable of serious harm if negligently made owes a duty of care in the design, inspection, and fabrication of the product. Such duty is owed not only to the immediate purchaser but to all persons who might foreseeably come into contact with the product. See MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 111 N.E. 1050 (N.Y. 1916). Presently, such claims may be brought under the guidelines of the Restatement (Third) of Torts, and fall under the section specifically dealing with products liability. The Restatement categorizes such claims as due to (1) manufacturing defect; (2) design defect; or a (3) defect by reason of inadequate warnings or instructions. Restatement Section: 402A provides for strict liability in tort for anyone “who sells a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or his property.”
    There are a number of defenses. The Hughes court addressed the issues surrounding a plaintiff’s possible misuse of the product in question. “Contributory negligence of a plaintiff is not a defense to strict liability when such negligence consists merely in a failure to discover the defect in the product, or to guard against the possibility of its existence.” There are exceptions. “If the user or consumer discovers the defect and is aware of the danger, and nevertheless proceeds unreasonably to make use of the product and is injured by it, he is barred from recovery.”
    Such conduct falls under the rubric of assumption of risk. The court explained, “[m]isuse precludes recovery when a plaintiff uses a product in a manner which defendant could not reasonably foresee. Assumption of risk is a defense to a strict liability action when a plaintiff voluntarily and unreasonably proceeds to encounter a known danger.” However, a number of logical complications arise with regard to issues of proof. The court thus stated, “[m]isuse of product is no longer considered an affirmative defense in products liability actions but is rather to be treated in connection with a plaintiff’s burden of proving an unreasonably dangerous condition and legal cause.” In this manner, the burden is shifted to the plaintiff, as here, to establish foreseeability as an element of his case: “[r]egardless of whether a defendant does or does not plead misuse of the product the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the legal cause of the injury is a product defect which renders the prod
    uct unreasonably dangerous in a reasonably foreseeable use.”
    This approach apportions responsibility in that a manufacturer must consider the various ways in which the product will be used, properly or improperly. “In some situations, negligent use of a product by a consumer is reasonably foreseeable by the producer and, therefore, is not ‘misuse’ for liability purposes.” As the court further explained, “[i]f the ordinary user would be reasonably aware that use of a product in a certain way is dangerous, use of the product in that manner is less foreseeable by the producer than a use to which danger is not normally ascribed. But the ordinary user’s awareness that use of the product in a certain manner is dangerous does not conclusively establish that such use is not reasonably foreseeable, for the defendant may in a given case reasonably foresee that a given product will be used by persons such as children who do not possess the knowledge of the ordinary user. Hence knowledge which can be reasonably attributed to the ordinary user is to be cons
    idered as a factor in determining whether the manner in which the plaintiff used the product is reasonably foreseeable.”


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