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Potter v. Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs sued Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co. (Defendant) for products liability. They claimed that the use of Defendant’s tools caused them permanent vascular and neurological impairments.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In order to prevail for a design defect, a plaintiff must prove that the product is unreasonably dangerous under the consumer expectation standard.

    Facts. Plaintiffs were employed as “grinders.” They used pneumatic hand tools, designed and manufactured by Defendant. Plaintiffs suffered permanent vascular and neurological impairments including blanching of their fingers, pain, numbness, tingling, reduction of grip strength, intolerance to cold and clumsiness from restricted blood flow. Testing of Defendant’s tools revealed that a large number of its tools violated the limits for vibration exposure established by the American National Standards Institute, and exceeded the threshold limit promulgated by the American Conference of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists. Plaintiffs brought suit against Defendant for products liability. They allege that the tools were defectively designed, because they failed to provide adequate warnings with respect to the potential danger presented by excessive vibration.

    Issue. In order to prevail for a design defect, must a plaintiff prove that the product is unreasonably dangerous under the consumer expectation standard?

    Held. Yes. Judgment for Plaintiffs.
    * The consumer expectation standard determines a product’s defectiveness by the expectations of an ordinary consumer.
    * Defendant proposed that the court abandon the consumer expectation standard and adopt the requirement that Plaintiff must prove the existence of a reasonable alternative design in order to prevail on a design defect claim. The court declined to accept Defendant’s proposal.
    * The feasible alternative design requirement imposes an undue burden on Plaintiffs that might preclude otherwise valid claims from jury consideration. Such a rule would require Plaintiffs to retain an expert witness even in cases, in which, lay jurors can infer a design defect from circumstantial evidence.
    * There are instances involving complex product designs in which an ordinary consumer may not be able to form expectations of safety. In these instances, the inquiry would be whether or not a reasonable consumer would consider the product design unreasonably dangerous. The relevant factors that a jury may consider include, but are not limited to: the usefulness of the product, the likelihood and severity of the danger posed by the design, the feasibility of an alternative design, the financial cost of an improved design, the ability to reduce the product’s danger without impairing design, the ability to reduce the products’ danger without impairing it usefulness or making it too expensive, and the feasibility of spreading the loss by increasing the product’s price.
    * In this case, there was testimony that the tools were unreasonably dangerous based on the ordinary consumer expectation test.

    Discussion. Courts do not require Plaintiff to design a better product. A jury can determine whether or not a design is defective without having to design a better one. Plaintiffs, for the most part, are innocent victims, not designers or invertors.


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