Products Liability: Causation And Circumstantial Evidence

Chavez v. Glock, Inc., (Second District, July 24, 2012) 144 Cal.Rptr.3d 326, 12 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 8309, 2012 Daily Journal D.A.R. 10,149

An off-duty police officer who was rendered a paraplegic when his three-year old son shot him in the back with his service weapon, filed a products liability action against the manufacturer and seller of the gun. The plaintiff alleged that he had accidentally left the holstered gun in the back of his car within reach of his son, who was belted in a jump seat, and that the boy had somehow managed to cause the gun to discharge while they were stopped at a red light. The plaintiff further alleged that the gun was defective in that, inter alia, it had a light trigger pull yet lacked a safety mechanism to prevent accidental, unknowing or inadvertent discharge.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiff could not prove causation, in that he could not establish the amount of force the boy had exerted on the trigger, nor how the boy’s hands were positioned at the time of discharge. The trial court granted summary judgment, but the court of appeal reversed as to the design defect, negligence and breach of warranty causes of action, holding that the absence of direct evidence as to how the gun was fired did not render proof on the issue of causation speculative:

“Glock and Revolver Club, however, have failed to carry their initial burden to demonstrate Chavez cannot prove the lack of a grip safety or the light trigger pull caused his injury. Glock and Revolver Club’s causation argument is primarily predicated on Chavez’s concession he cannot prove either the amount of force Collin exerted on the pistol when he discharged it or the manner in which he held the pistol.
. . .
To establish Chavez did not have, and could not reasonably obtain, evidence proving causation, Glock and Revolver Club were required to present evidence Chavez could not obtain an expert opinion stating it is unlikely a three-year-old child could discharge a pistol with a grip safety. In fact, Chavez did present such an expert opinion.
. . .
To be sure, the absence of direct evidence regarding how Collin fired the gun renders the causation question more difficult to resolve. But, it is neither impossible to prove causation nor is proof on this issue necessarily speculative. . . . The hand size and grip strength of children are readily measurable. Although there may be some variation among individual children, the jury could reasonable infer from such evidence whether a child of Collin’s age and size could depress a grip safety. Similarly, a child’s ability to pull a trigger of various trigger pull strengths is measurable. . . . [“ ‘[i]t is not incumbent upon a plaintiff to show that an inference in his favor is the only one that may be reasonably drawn from the evidence; he need only show that the material fact to be proved may logically and reasonably be inferred from the circumstantial evidence’ ”].)

Indeed, as the Supreme Court explained in Campbell v. General Motors Corp., supra, 32 Cal.3d 112, 184 Cal.Rptr. 891, 649 P.2d 224, “It is particularly appropriate that the jury be allowed to determine the inference to be drawn when the evidence indicates that a safety device, designed to prevent the very injury that occurred, was not present. To take the case from the jury simply because the plaintiff could not prove to a certainty that the device would have prevented the accident would enable the manufacturer to prevail on the basis of its failure to provide the safeguard. [Citation.] Such a rule would provide a disincentive to improve the safety features of a product and thereby interfere with one of the major policy goals of strict liability.””

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