Articles Posted in Products Liability

Earlier this month, a federal appellate court issued an opinion in a product liability case that illustrates the importance of vetting and selecting an expert witness in an Indiana product liability case. Ultimately, the court concluded that the experts whom the plaintiff planned to have testify at trial did not base their opinions on sufficiently reliable methodology, and thus it excluded the experts’ opinions from testimony.

Laptop KeyboardThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff’s son was killed in a house fire in the plaintiff’s basement. After the fire, investigators searched through the basement for signs of what could have caused the fire. Several battery cells from their son’s laptop were recovered. One of the battery cells had ruptured, and the plaintiffs believed it was due to a defect in the battery. Thus, the plaintiffs filed a product liability case against the manufacturer of the laptop, the battery, and several components of the battery.

In support of their case, the plaintiffs presented testimony from two expert witnesses. The first was a “battery expert” who had a PhD in inorganic chemistry. He planned on testifying that, according to his experience, the fire was caused by an internal defect in the battery. While the expert acknowledged that being exposed to the heat of the fire could have caused the battery cell to rupture, the expert concluded that if that were the case, he would have expected all three battery cells to have ruptured. However, since only one cell ruptured, he concluded that the most likely cause of the fire was an internal defect in the ruptured cell.

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Earlier this month, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion that will likely be of interest to anyone considering an Indiana product liability lawsuit against a vehicle manufacturer. The case presented the court with the opportunity to answer two questions. First, it addressed whether the lower court was proper in dismissing the plaintiff’s case against the defendant vehicle manufacturer based on a perceived inconsistency in the jury’s verdict. And second, it addressed the issue of, if the plaintiff’s case was sufficient as a matter of law, whether the $1 million damages that the jury awarded him were adequate. Ultimately, the court resolved both questions in favor of the plaintiff.

VW VanThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was injured in a roll-over accident when the van he was operating rear-ended another vehicle on the highway. While the initial collision was minor, the plaintiff was seriously injured when the van rolled, and he hit his head on the roof of the vehicle. After the accident, the plaintiff was permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

The plaintiff filed a product liability lawsuit against the vehicle’s manufacturer, making several claims. The plaintiff presented evidence showing that the manufacturer did not conduct any safety testing on the seatbelt mechanism in the van. The plaintiff also had an expert witness testify that, had testing been conducted, the results would have indicated that the seatbelt mechanism was unsafe, and the manufacturer would have likely used a safer mechanism in its place.

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In a recent opinion, a federal appellate court dismissed a case filed by an employee who claimed that he developed health issues after being exposed to a toxic substance. The employee was working on his employer’s roof and was exposed to fumes of a glue that contained methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI). The employee brought a claim against the glue manufacturer, alleging that the exposure to MDI caused him neurological and psychological problems, and he was not properly warned of the health risks.

GlueAfter the parties engaged in discovery, the court dismissed the claim. It found that under Indiana law, a toxic tort claim required an expert on the issue of causation, and the employee did not provide such evidence. He only identified an expert on the language warnings but did not provide an expert on causation.

The employee argued that six treating physicians who provided reports were experts, even though they were not identified as experts in discovery. However, the court found that the employee was required to disclose who he planned to offer as an expert witness. In addition, the physicians’ reports the employee attached only summarized the employee’s symptoms and suggested a course of treatment. The court determined that the experts did not discuss causation and failed to state that they believed the MDI caused the employee’s health issues or explain why the glue may have caused his neurological and psychological problems. In contrast, the defendant provided an assessment from the World Health Organization, stating that MDI can irritate lung tissues and cause asthma-like symptoms, but it is not associated with other bad outcomes. As a result, the court dismissed the case.

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Over the past several years, General Motors has paid out over $2 billion in fines and damages related to faulty ignition switches in several of the company’s models. In cases across the country, accident victims claimed that GM was responsible for their injuries, due to the faulty switches. However, the problem was not just that the switches were faulty but also that there was evidence that GM knew about the defects but failed to take appropriate action.

Car KeysAfter the defect was discovered, GM filed for bankruptcy. Post-bankruptcy, GM then argued that it should not be held liable in any of the lawsuits stemming from the faulty ignition switch that were filed prior to the company filing for bankruptcy. An earlier lower court ruling rejected the company’s claim, finding that the company may be held liable for the pre-bankruptcy claims. GM then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to a national news source, the United States Supreme Court recently rejected GM’s appeal, leaving in place the lower court decision. Some experts hypothesize that the most recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion could expose the auto-manufacturing giant to liability in a significant number of unsettled cases, potentially resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

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Whenever someone is involved in an accident, certain duties are triggered. One of those duties is to preserve any evidence that may become useful to the opposing party in the event that a lawsuit is later filed by the accident victim. A party’s failure to preserve material evidence can result in a variety of sanctions being imposed against that party, including the judge entering judgment in favor of the opposing party. A recent case in front of a federal court of appeals illustrates this concept.

ScaffoldingSchaefer v. Universal Scaffolding:  The Facts

The plaintiff, Schaefer, was a construction worker who routinely worked with scaffolding. On the day in question, a piece of scaffolding came loose and struck Schaefer in the head, causing serious injuries. Schaefer filed a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the scaffolding, as well as related claims against his own employer as well as the company that contracted the work to be done. Relevant to this case was Schaefer’s claim against the manufacturer of the scaffolding.

Before the trial began, Schaefer was informed that the actual piece of scaffolding that struck him in the head was no longer in the possession of the defendant. Believing this evidence to be crucial to his case, Schaefer asked the court to enter judgment in his favor because the evidence had been in the sole control of the defendant, and it was their duty to preserve it. Schaefer claimed that it was reasonably foreseeable that he would have filed a product liability claim against the manufacturer, and that triggered a duty to preserve the evidence.

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Earlier this month, a federal appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a product liability case filed against a ride-on lawnmower manufacturer. In the case, Parks v. Ariens, the court held that the defendant manufacturer was not negligent in failing to install a roll-over protection system (ROPS) on a ride-on lawnmower because it offered the ROPS as optional equipment at an additional cost.

LawnmowerThe Facts of the Case

In 2006, Parks purchased a used ride-on lawnmower from a licensed dealer. At the time of the purchase, the roll-over-protection system, which consisted of a roll-cage and seatbelt, was optional equipment that a buyer could purchase at an additional cost. When Parks was discussing the purchase of the mower with the defendant’s salesperson, the salesperson discussed the type of terrain where Parks would be using the mower. While the salesperson did not recall whether he offered the ROPS package to Parks, he did testify that it was his common practice to always ask if the customer wanted the package.

Parks decided to purchase the mower but not to add the ROPS. About seven years after the purchase date, Parks was killed when the mower rolled, trapping him underneath. His wife filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the lawn mower. She claimed that the manufacturer was negligent in failing to install the ROPS on the mower before selling it to her husband.

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When a party takes a case to trial and does not get the result they had hoped for, they can sometimes appeal the lower court’s decision to an appellate court to have the case reviewed. Most states, including Indiana, have three levels of courts: trial, intermediate appellate, and supreme. As the name implies, the trial court is where a trial takes place. If a party is not satisfied with a ruling, they may appeal to the intermediate appellate court. If that court finds against the party again, they can file another appeal in the state supreme court. In some very limited and specific circumstances, a party may be able to make one final appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

gavel-1017953_960_720A court, however, will not hear any issue merely because a party was not satisfied with the ultimate result; there must be some legal issue that is the basis of the appeal. Often, these are evidentiary rulings made by the trial judge.

Trial judges are supposed to follow rules of evidence, which dictate what kinds of evidence are admissible at trial. If evidence that was not supposed to be considered by the jurors is put before the jury, that may result in reversible error. Similarly, if a judge prevents a party from admitting evidence that should have been admitted, that too can qualify as reversible error. However, a party almost always has to “preserve” the error by objecting when the adverse ruling is made.

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The New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest state appellate court in New York, recently released a decision affirming two lower court decisions to exclude a plaintiff’s proposed expert witnesses in a personal injury case filed on behalf of a child who was born with serious birth defects and disabilities alleged to have resulted from his mother inhaling gasoline fumes while she was pregnant with him. The plaintiff in Sean R. v. BMW of North America, LLC alleged that a defective fuel line in the mother’s car caused her to breath toxic levels of gasoline vapor while she was pregnant and resulted in the serious disabilities from which the child continues to suffer.

bmw-z3-mean-1549766The New York Court of Appeals agreed with the rulings of the other courts and found that two of the plaintiff’s proposed experts in the case did not rely on generally accepted scientific principles to reach the conclusions that supported the plaintiff’s case, so their testimony should not be heard by the jury. As a result of this final ruling, the plaintiff will not be compensated for the injuries that he alleged were caused by the negligence of the defendant.

Pregnant Mother-To-Be Continuously Smells Gasoline Vapors While Driving

The plaintiff’s mother had purchased a car from the defendant in 1989, and within two years of buying the car, she began to notice a strong smell of gasoline while driving. According to the recently released opinion, she was also able to smell the vapor from her home when the car was parked in the garage. After taking the car into the dealer, she was told they could not find a problem. Shortly after the problem of gasoline vapors arose, the woman became pregnant with the plaintiff. After the gasoline odor worsened, the plaintiff’s father brought the car back to the dealer, and a fuel leak was found in the engine compartment, caused by a split hose. The leak was fixed, but the plaintiff’s mother had driven 6,458 miles over the course of eight months while the leak was present, and part of that time she was pregnant with the plaintiff.

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Earlier this month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case in favor of a woman whose husband was killed when a gun in his friend’s possession accidentally discharged. The court’s opinion in the case, O’Neal v. Remington Arms Company, held that the plaintiff submitted enough proof of negligence on the part of the gun manufacturer for the case to proceed towards trial.

rifle-scope-1-1576601The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s written opinion, Remington used a “Walker trigger” in weapons dating back to 1971. At some point between then and now, Remington was made aware that there was a potential defect in the trigger mechanism, and that the gun may fire when the safety is turned off, even though the trigger was not pulled. Remington, knowing this, did not recall the roughly 20,000 rifles affected by the potential hazard and allowed them to remain for sale and in the market.

In 2008, the plaintiff’s husband went hunting with some friends. He loaned his Remington rifle to one of his friends. At some point on the hunting trip, the friend pulled the rifle out when he spotted a deer, and the gun accidentally discharged, killing O’Neal. O’Neal’s wife filed suit against Remington for the negligent design of the trigger mechanism.

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Although the tragic events happened two years ago, lawsuits are still being filed for damages resulting from the Sugarland concert stage collapse at the 2011 Indiana State Fair. The outdoor show stage area was suffering extensive wind gusts at the time. The temporary roof structure of the stage collapsed and landed among the crowds. Seven people were killed in the event and nearly 60 were injured. concert-1394697-m.jpg

The Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company is the latest to file suit, only moments before the statute of limitations expired on its claims. The company was responsible for insuring the musical instruments and equipment of the bands, which all suffered extensive damage during the collapse. The lawsuit alleges negligence and products liability. The terms of the lawsuit allege that the stage rigging was not properly erected. The suit is naming a group of parties who were responsible for varying stages of constructing, erecting, and maintaining the stage.

Sugarland, a country music duo, had not yet appeared on stage but were finishing their warm-ups when the collapse occurred. Two months after the accident the band played a free concert in Indiana to support those affected by accident. A court date of February 2014 has been scheduled to determine whether the two members of Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, may have any share of liability for the incidences of that evening.
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