Does the alleged defective design of car's seat allow application of " consumer expectation" test, engineer strict-liability, and non-apportionment of general damages among designers?

March 26, 2014
By Justice Steven Vartabedian (Ret.) on March 26, 2014 6:07 AM |

seat-424212-m.jpgIn Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc. (filed 3/17/14) B239761, the chain collision caused by a speeding vehicle crashing into a line of vehicles stopped at an intersection resulted in the striking of plaintiff's vehicle, rendering her a quadriplegic. The force of the collision caused plaintiff's seatback to collapse and her head violently struck the vehicles back seat. Parties sued by plaintiff included the manufacturer of the car seat and the engineering company which participated in the design of the Nissan Frontier vehicle's driver's seat. Other defendant-parties settled before trial. Plaintiff tried the case on the theory of strict product liability alone. The jury found these remaining defendants 20% responsible, with total verdict of $24.745 million; the trial court entered judgment against them in the sum of $4.607 million.

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On appeal, the instant defendants contended (1) the trial court erred in permitting plaintiff to try the case under the consumer expectations design defect test;(2) the component parts doctrine precluded a strict liability finding; (3) the provider of engineering services could not be held strictly liable; (4) apportionment of fault should have been allowed among other manufacturers; and (5) the full billings of past medical care were erroneously admitted. The Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Five, while disagreeing with contentions (1), (2) and (5), reversed and remanded the matter for a partial retrial because the engineering company could not be strictly liable for its services, and the seat manufacturer was entitled to an apportionment of fault with the others within the stream of manufacture, as well with other defendants found by the jury to be a substantial cause of plaintiff's injuries.

First, the appellate court found the consumer expectation test was properly put before the jury. Defendant argued that the jury should have only been allowed to consider the risk/benefit test. Under the consumer expectation test, the objective condition of the product (the seat) is evaluated by the jury to see if its design meets a consumer's ordinary expectation of safety under the circumstances, regardless of the merits of the design. Such a test should not be used by a jury where the theory of defect seeks to examine "obscure components under complex circumstances." (McCabe v. American Honda Motor Co. (2002) 100 Cal.App.4th 1111, 1122.) The Court of Appeal found this not to be a matter of a component part at all, the seat itself being a product; furthermore this was not matter so complex as to render the jury incapable of assessing. Consumers have expectations about whether a vehicle's driver seat will collapse in a rear-end collision.

Next, the court ruled that because the engineering company did not "manufacture, sell, or otherwise place the car seat into commerce", it could not be held strictly liable. It could be liable for negligence, which was a cause of action in plaintiff's complaint; but plaintiff chose only to try the case on the strict liability theory.

Concerning apportionment of fault, Proposition 51(Civil Code section 1431) provides liability of numerous liable defendants is joint and several for economic damages. General damages are awarded based on apportionment of fault where appropriate. The trial court allowed the jury to consider apportionment only as to the other vehicle drivers and owners. During trial, defense counsel pursued a defense that the seat belt was defective, not the reclining mechanism of the seat. A line of cases has held that Proposition 51 does not apply in a strict products liability action when a single defective product produced a single injury--that is all of the defendants in the stream of commerce remain jointly and severally liable. (Bostick v. Flex Equipment Co., Inc. ( 2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 80, 92-93.) Under this line of cases, the seat manufacturer would not be entitled to apportionment with the other "seat" defendants. The appellate court found this case did not fit within this line of cases because there was evidence of defect design of the seat belt causing the injury, as well as the design defect evidence concerning the reclining mechanism of the seat. Thus a limited retrial was ordered at which defendant seat manufacturer's liability could be reduced by the portion of fault attributed to other seat defendants, including the engineering company for its asserted negligence (however, the engineering company could not itself be retried because plaintiff chose not to present a case of negligence in the first trial).

Finally, defendants claim that fully billed (rather than only paid or outstanding) past medical bills were improperly admitted into evidence. While this is true, defendants demonstrated no prejudice. There was no prejudice because the billed amounts were reduced post-verdict to the Howell- appropriate amount. (See blog of May 17, 2013) Furthermore, on the use of this evidence to gauge general damages and future medical damages, no party argued or presented evidence that the billed damages should serve as a guideline for these other awards.

This opinion is loaded with points worth taking not of. Product liability plaintiffs should not automatically drop their negligence claims at trial and rely solely on strict liability. The details of a defective product case can strongly affect allowable theories, tests and whether apportionment will apply. And even if the Corenbaum prohibition of admission of billed medicals on the subject of general and future damages withstands scrutiny (again see blog of May 17, 2013), a defendant still needs to prove prejudice.