Northern California Record

Monday, July 15, 2019

California Supreme Court to examine standards for evidence in product defect cases

By Chandra Lye | Nov 3, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO – The type of evidence allowed at product defect cases may soon change, pending a decision by the California Supreme Court.

The circumstances comes from a liability case against Toyota Motor Corp., after plaintiff William Jae Kim claimed the company was irresponsible in its design of the Tundra pickup.

According to court documents, Kim was involved in a collision in April 2010. He was driving northbound on Angels Forest highway, traveling about 45-50 mph. The road was wet. A car driving toward him slightly crossed over the center line and Kim swerved to miss the vehicle. The road was wet and he lost control of his vehicle, driving off the highway into an embankment. He was extracted from his vehicle by firefighters and suffered a serious neck injury and damage to his spinal cord.

Kim sued the company, claiming that because electronic stability control (ESC) or vehicle stability control (VSC) was only offered as an option on the vehicle, not as automatically included, Toyota had created a defective product.

At a trial court Toyota presented evidence that it was automotive industry practice to have ESC as an option, not required, on vehicles.

Kim’s request to exclude the evidence was denied by the court.

"We hold that evidence of industry custom and practice may be admissible in a strict products liability action, depending on the nature of the evidence and the purpose for which the proponent seeks to introduce the evidence," the California Court of Appeal found.

However, because such evidence has not always been allowed in strict product liability cases, the California Supreme Court must now clarify the law.

“The Supreme Court will evaluate the decision of the trial court, so what it will do is clarify or further position the law on analyzing complex product liability litigation under that risk-benefit test,” Carl Pesce, an attorney at Thompson Coburn, told the Northern California Record.

 In an article he co-wrote for his firm, Pesce clarified that there were two types of product defect litigations, one was negligence and the other was strict product liability. The difference, according to Pesce, was that each has its own rules of evidence.

A case claiming defective design based on strict liability will only look at the condition of the product. Yet a case that claims negligence on behalf of the manufacturer needs to look at the conduct involved in the product’s design.

"Consequently, under strict tort liability, the defendant may be found liable without any regard to its knowledge or conduct,” the article stated.

Industry practice or custom has been allowed as evidence in negligence cases to show that the manufacturer was using standard practices in the industry.

Also, in strict liability cases, courts have consumer expectations tests and risk-benefit tests.

"Under the risk-benefit test, a product has a design defect if the risks of danger inherent in the design outweigh the benefits of the design,” the authors wrote.

These risk-benefit tests have been used in cases that involve complex technical matters, according to the article.

Pesce said the appellate court decision stated that “just because everybody is making it the same way isn’t a defense in the strict liability test it is. They’ve analyzed it differently. They’ve talked about the government standards. The government standards being relevant on the issues of weighing – as the jurors weigh – whether the danger in the design outweighs the benefits.”

He said the California Supreme Court has decided to review the decision. “We will have to wait and see how it shakes out, so to speak,” he said.

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