The plaintiff’s ankles were badly injured when her car made by the defendant collided with another car. She claimed that defects in her car allowed its left front wheel to break free, collapse backwards, and smash the floorboard of the car into her feet. The defendant claims that the force of the collision alone caused the injury, not a design defect.
In cases of design defects in complex products, the risks and benefits of the design should be weighed against each other to determine whether the design embodies excessive preventable danger.
On January 16, 1984, the plaintiff was driving a 1982 Camaro, manufactured by the defendant, in the center lane of an arterial street. There was a slight drizzle, so the roads were wet, and the plaintiff was not wearing a seatbelt. A 1972 Datsun coming from the other direction skidded across the road, striking the plaintiff’s car in the area near the left front wheel. The vehicles’ combined closing speeds on impact were estimated to be between 30 and 70 miles per hour. The collision bend the Camaro’s frame and tore loose the bracket that attached the wheel to the frame, allowing the wheel to collapse backwards and smash the car’s floorboards into the plaintiff’s feet. This caused considerable damage to the plaintiff’s ankles, including a fused joint that permanently disallows the plaintiff from flexing her ankle. As a result, she is barely able to walk, and her condition is expected to deteriorate.
Can a product’s design be found defective on the grounds that the product’s performance fell below the safety expectations of the ordinary consumer if the question of how safely the product should have performed cannot be answered by common experience?
Yes. Although the jury instruction regarding the consumer expectations test was incorrect, it did not cause actual prejudice. The appellate court ruling is affirmed.
The court generally recognizes two approaches in design defects cases. The first is ordinary knowledge—that consumers have a base level of expectations for the safety performance of the products they use, and they govern their conduct based on these expectations. In more complex cases, like this one and others including highly technical products like cars, the ordinary consumer has no technical knowledge on the workings or safety of the product. In these cases, a product might still be found to be defective if the design embodies excessive preventable danger—unless the the benefits of the design outweigh the inherent risk of danger. In these cases, a jury must consider evidence about the benefits of the design brought forth by the defendant and weight the risks against the benefits. The trial court gave an ordinary consumer expectations jury instruction despite the complex nature of this case, which it did in error. That being said, that error was harmless because it is not reasonably probable that the defendant would have received a more favorable result in the absence of that instruction. A large amount of evidence on both the risks and the benefits was given at trial, and there is no reason to believe that the jury did not take this into consideration.