Products Liability: Consumer Expectations Test

Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc., (Second District, March 17, 2014) 2014 WL 1012960, 14 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 2958, 2014 Daily Journal D.A.R. 3414, — Cal.Rptr.3d —-

A woman who was rendered quadriplegic when her seat collapsed when her pickup truck was rear-ended, filed a products liability action against the manufacturer of the seat. The plaintiff contended that the seat was defectively designed, in that it had failed to restrain her in the collision, allowing her body to slide up the seat and strike her head on the vehicle’s back seat.

Following a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff the manufacturer appealed, contending that the trial court erred in permitting the plaintiff to try that claim under the consumer expectations test rather than the risk/benefit test. The defendant argued that the consumer expectations test may not be used to evaluate “the performance of the design of a single part of a multi-component vehicle and restraint system in a violent, multi-vehicle car crash, and that the trial court erred in excluding evidence relevant to the risk/benefit test. However, the court of appeal affirmed, rejecting the argument that the complexity of the collision precluded application of the consumer expectations test:

Defendants contend that in this case, the “collisions involved far too many complex factors, such as the force from the mass striking the Frontier, the weight of the occupants, and the interplay of multiple components in the vehicle and restraint system, to allow a consumer to arrive at any objective, common-knowledge based expectation about how plaintiff’s vehicle seatback should have performed.” They argue that “[t]he interplay of the Frontier’s numerous component parts in a high-speed, chain-reaction crash are not within the realm of the average consumer’s experience or expectation.”

The accident that caused plaintiff’s injuries was not as complex as defendants claim. Although there were multiple vehicles and multiple collisions in the incident, there was a single collision that caused plaintiff’s injuries—plaintiff was injured when the Altima rear-ended her Frontier. That another car first hit the Altima and that plaintiff’s Frontier hit the car in front of plaintiff, which in turn hit the car in front of it, after the Altima struck plaintiff’s Frontier had no bearing on plaintiff’s injuries. Defendants’ own expert testified that plaintiff sustained her injuries during the rear-end impact on her car. Rear-end collisions are common and within the average consumer’s ordinary experience. Consumers have expectations about whether a vehicle’s driver seat will collapse rearward in a rear-end collision, regardless of the speed of the collision.

Defendants also contend that “the physical forces at play throughout the collisions also are not within the average consumer’s knowledge. Plaintiff’s extensive expert testimony about complicated physics and engineering principles demonstrates that the consumer expectations test was not appropriate to evaluate whether defendants’ seat contained a design defect.” That causation for a plaintiff’s injuries was proved through expert testimony does not mean that an ordinary consumer would be unable to form assumptions about the product’s safety.
. . .
Because, as we held above, the trial court properly permitted plaintiff to proceed on the consumer expectations test, it did not err in excluding defendants’ risk-benefit evidence.

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