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Wilson v. Piper Aircraft Corp

    Brief Fact Summary. These are consolidated appeals from Circuit Court, Lane County (Oregon), where a jury returned sizeable verdicts for Plaintiffs, family members of deceased passengers of airplanes, who had filed claims against aircraft manufacturers alleging that a crash was caused by engine failure resulting from carburetor icing.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Plaintiff’s burden in a design defect case includes a showing that there was an available alternative, safer design, practicable under the circumstances, or that in terms of cost, practicality and technological possibility, the alternative design was feasible.

    Facts. Decedents died in an airplane crash, and surviving family members brought an action alleging that the crash was caused by engine failure resulting from carburetor icing, and that the deaths were caused in part by injuries that resulted from certain design features in the rear passenger compartment. Specifically, Plaintiffs contended, that the use of carburetor rather than fuel injection, and the absence of a carburetor heat gauge were fundamental defects in the plane’s design. They submitted evidence to support these allegations, and the jury found for Plaintiffs.

    Issue. Did Plaintiffs submit sufficient evidence for a jury to make a determination as to whether Defendant should be held liable for defective design of its aircraft?

    Held. The decision of the lower court was reversed and remanded, as Plaintiffs did not produce sufficient evidence that a reasonably prudent manufacturer who was aware of the risks of carburetor icing would not have designed this model of aircraft with a carbureted engine, or that substitution of a fuel injected engine was practicable.

    Discussion. In the section addressing Products Liability, The Restatement (Third) of Torts (1997) provides an analysis that is functionally rather than doctrinally (classifying a claim as negligence, warranty, strict tort liability) based. Such an approach considers whether the claim alleges a 1) manufacturing defect; 2) a defect in design; or a 3) defect by reason of insufficient warnings or instructions. Product design often involves sophisticated, complex and/or highly technical issues, and challenging issues of proof arise. As the Wilson court pointed out, “[c]harges of defective design present special problems. One of those special problems is the nature, and necessary proof, of a defect in a product which reaches the consumer in precisely the condition intended by the designer/manufacturer.” A question then arises as to the degree of responsibility a manufacturer exercises in placing its product within the stream of commerce. The court explained, “[w]hen a design feature of a m
    anufactured product creates a risk of injury, the test for strict liability in tort, if that injury results, is whether a reasonably prudent manufacturer would have so designed and sold the article in question had he known of the risk involved which injured plaintiff.” Thus, as noted above, “[p]laintiff’s burden in a design defect case includes a showing that there was an available alternative, safer design, practicable under the circumstances, or that in terms of cost, practicality and technological possibility, the alternative design was feasible.”
    With the goal of achieving an equitable balance, most courts have adopted risk/utility evaluations for what constitutes a design defect. The Wilson court articulated this analysis in the following manner: “[t]he court should balance the utility of the risk against its magnitude in deciding whether to submit a design defect case to the jury. One of the factors to be weighed in making this determination is the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility. In other words, the court is to determine, and to weigh in the balance, whether the proposed alternative design has been shown to be practicable.” Proof is the critical component of what amounts to a factual determination. “The trial court should not permit an allegation of design defect to go to the jury unless there is sufficient evidence upon which to make this determination,” the court noted, adding, “[I]f liability for al
    leged design defects is to stop somewhere short of the freakish and the fantastic, plaintiffs’ prima facie case of a defect must show more than the technical possibility of a safer design.”
    In this instance, the court held that plaintiffs did not produce sufficient evidence that a reasonably prudent manufacturer who was aware of the risks of carburetor icing would not have designed this model of aircraft with a carbureted engine, or that substitution of a fuel injected engine was practicable. Thus, Defendant manufacturer was entitled to a new trial.


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