The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year on a products liability case that attempted to exclude expert testimony regarding defective product design, and implicate the defense of “assumption of risk” in a personal injury case.
The decision, Wilson Sporting Goods Co. v. Hickox, 59 A. 3d 1267 Ct. App. D.C. (2013), dealt with a baseball umpire who became permanently injured as a result of an allegedly defectively designed face mask that he was wearing. The plaintiff, Edwin Hickox, was given the mask by a Wilson representative at an annual retreat for Major League Baseball players. The representative claimed that the mask was a new, safer design.
Several months later, Hickox was wearing the mask while he worked behind the home plate during a game in Washington D.C. Towards the end of the game, he was struck in the mask with a foul ball, the impact of which gave him a concussion, and damaged a joint between the bones in his inner ear. As a result, he now suffers from mild to moderate permanent hearing loss.
Hickox and his wife sued Wilson, under a products liability theory. The jury was charged with deciding on claims for strict liability for a defective product, design defect, negligent design, design defect due to failure to warn, and breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. The jury rendered verdict for the Hickoxes on each of their claims, awarding $750,000 to Mr. Hickox and $25,000 to his wife.
Wilson appealed the decision, challenging the plaintiff’s expert witness’s testimony, and alleging that he had somehow assumed the risk of injury by wearing their mask.
Wilson challenged both the general scientific foundation of the plaintiff’s expert witness’s testimony, and the individual bases for his findings.
Regarding Wilson’s argument that the expert performed no tests, the court affirmed that there is no requirement that an expert perform tests, particularly where the expert relies on published data generated by another expert in the pertinent field.
Regarding Wilson’s challenge that the expert failed to provide an adequate explanation of his reasoning, the court found that he did explain his reasoning, step by step, in fact. He made use of freeze frames of the incident, and presented in detail his theories regarding what happened. Furthermore, any gaps in his reasoning could have been addressed on cross examination or in closing statements if the defendants had so desired.
In sum, the court of appeals found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the expert’s testimony.
Regarding Wilson’s claim that the plaintiff assumed the risk, the court first laid out the standard, which states that, “An assumption-of-risk instruction is warranted in a design-defect case if the defendant offers evidence that the plaintiff knew about the specific alleged defect and the associated danger.”
However, simply showing that the plaintiff knew the general risks of baseball umpiring was not enough. Wilson had to show that the plaintiff knew that the way the mask was made had a tendency to concentrate energy, rather than diffuse it, which could create a risk of injury.
Because Wilson failed to present such evidence, the trial court did not err by not giving an assumption-of-risk instruction to the jury.
Lastly, regarding Wilson’s claim of insufficient evidence to support a product liability judgment, the court found that the evidence presented to the jury regarding the nature of the design of the mask, how it performed when struck with a ball, and in accordance with their common experiences and knowledge was sufficient to reach the conclusion that the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary customer would expect when used in the intended or reasonably foreseeable manner.
The evidence tended to show that the mask at issue was more dangerous than others available on the market, such as the kind the plaintiff had worn in the past, and that the design of the mask he used would increase the risk of severe injury.
In sum, considering all the evidence, a reasonable juror could conclude that an ordinary consumer would have expected the mask to perform more safely than it did.
The judgment of the trial court was therefore affirmed.
If you or a loved one has sustained a personal injury as a result of someone else’s negligence in Maryland or Washington D.C., consult the experienced negligence attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC. Our Maryland personal injury accident attorneys have extensive experience in helping victims who have suffered as a result of someone else’s negligence recover the damages to which they are entitled. We have represented individuals who have been injured in many different types of accidents, including premises liability, products liability, car accidents, plane crashes, medical malpractice, etc. Contact us today in order to schedule your free initial consultation. You can reach us through our website, or by calling 1-800-654-1949.
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