Articles Posted in Products Liability

Under a product liability theory, manufacturers can be held liable for dangerous products that they release into the stream of commerce. However, not only can manufacturers be held liable, but also retailers and distributors may be held liable under certain circumstances. When a court considers a product liability case, there are several factors that may come into play, as was evidenced by a recent case in front of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Parks v. Ariens:  The Facts

Parks was fatally injured when the riding lawnmower he was operating rolled while Parks was negotiating a sloped surface. Parks’ wife then filed a product liability case against the dealer who had sold her husband the lawnmower, arguing that the dealer was negligent in failing to supply the mower with a roll cage and seatbelt.

The defendant answered the claim by explaining that it was not his duty to supply the roll cage and seatbelt. Indeed, the defendant presented evidence that it was his normal practice to ask customers if they want to purchase the roll cage and seatbelt as optional equipment at an additional cost. While there was no documentation that Parks turned down this offer, the dealer explained that it was his normal practice to explain this to his customers, and he could not recall anything different occurring in this case.

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Over the course of the last few years, General Motors has recalled over 26 million vehicles, spanning over 55 models. This series of recalls, the largest in U.S. history, covers all but three of GM’s main vehicle models. Many of the vehicles that were recalled had serious problems with the ignition switch. Indeed, it is difficult to gauge exactly how many deaths have been caused by the ignition switch problem, but by most estimates the number is well over 100.

What makes this recall extraordinary is not just the volume of vehicles recalled but also the fact that there is evidence suggesting GM knew about the dangers of the ignition switches but failed to do anything. This has led to a series of personal injury cases that, according to GM’s own estimates, will cost the company about $2.5 billion. It cost the company so much, in fact, that GM actually entered a form of bankruptcy.

According to a recent news article covering the bankruptcy, under an appellate court’s decision, accident victims’ claims against the “new” GM may be viable despite GM’s assertion that the claims dissolved along with the “old” GM. The court had to decide several important questions of law, just one of which was:  what happens to the claims filed by all those people who were injured by faulty ignition switches? Should those claims be dismissed because the corporation that manufactured the vehicle is technically no longer in existence? Or should the claims be able to be asserted against the new GM corporation?

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Earlier this month, a federal appellate court in California affirmed a lower court’s decision in a product liability case involving an allegedly defective door-knob guard that the plaintiffs claimed was responsible for their young son’s death. In the case, Coterel v. Dorel Juvenile Group, the court determined that even if the plaintiffs were correct, and the challenged evidence should not have been submitted to the jury, the effect of including the evidence had only a speculative effect, and reversal was not therefore required.

The Facts of the Case

The defendant manufactured a door-knob cover marketed to parents of young children who are tall enough to reach door knobs but may not know better than to open the door and walk out of the house. On the day in question, the plaintiffs placed the defendant’s door-knob cover on the front door of their home and placed their young son in bed in his crib. Evidently, the young boy escaped his crib, approached the front door, negotiated the door knob cover, and then walked out the front door of the house. Tragically, the boy was later found dead in a pond.

The parents of the boy filed a product liability case against the manufacturer of the cover, alleging that the product was defective. At trial, the defendant presented evidence that the parents knew their son had been able to negotiate the cover, and they had installed a chain lock on the door as well. However, on the day in question, the plaintiffs failed to use the chain lock.

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Earlier this month, health care products giant Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay out roughly $72 million to one woman over allegations that the company’s talcum powder caused her ovarian cancer. According to one local news source reporting on the case, the case relied not just on the fact that Johnson & Johnson’s product caused the woman’s cancer but also on the fact that the company failed to warn customers of known risks associated with the product.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs in the case were the family members of a woman who had used Johnson & Johnson’s “Shower to Shower” brand talcum powder for decades. The powder was marketed back in the 1970s as a safe feminine-hygiene product. However, there was evidence submitted at trial suggesting that Johnson & Johnson was aware of research indicating that the powder was not as safe as it was marketed to be. This decisive evidence was in the form of internal Johnson & Johnson documents.

Johnson & Johnson lawyers argued that there was no proof that the woman’s cancer was caused by the use of the company’s product. However, the jury rejected that argument and awarded the woman’s family roughly $72 million – an amount far-and-beyond the $22 million requested by the family.

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The recent listeria outbreak has been making national news over the past several weeks. According to a prominent news source, some leading organic food companies have had to issue recalls for some of their packaged foods. One organic food company had to recall almost 75,000 cases of frozen food because they possibly contained contaminated spinach.

Listeria is a disease that can result in extreme illness and in some cases even death. Young children, the elderly, and those who have a weakened immune system are particularly prone to developing a serious case of the disease. Some of the common initial symptoms of listeria include diarrhea, nausea, headache, and stiffness. Often, listeria goes undiagnosed because the initial symptoms mirror the flu. Pregnant women also face a danger of miscarriage and stillbirth if they contract the disease.

Some common items that have been recalled in this most recent outbreak are various types of tofus, pasta shells, spinach pizza, brown rice and vegetable bowls, and other frozen dishes made by these companies. Sadly, five people have developed listeria after eating contaminated food, and three of those individuals have died as a result.

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Over the past year, GM has recalled over 26 million automobiles. Of those, several million recalls were issued due to a faulty ignition switch. Chief among the recalled vehicles were the Saturn Ion and the Chevrolet Cobalt. As a part of the recall, GM has promised to repair all the recalled vehicles free of charge for their owners.

However, according to a recent article by the New York Times, owners are having a difficult time getting in to get the necessary repairs made. The article mentions the story of a 25-year-old New York woman who was killed when her 2006 Chevy Cobalt was involved in a terrible accident, killing the woman instantly. Evidently, the woman’s mother had taken the car into the dealership to have the recall taken care of twice in the past several months, but she was given two separate stories as to why the recall was not needed on her specific car.

Others recount similar stories about taking their recalled GM vehicles into a dealership to have the recalled part replaced and having the dealership tell them that it had “already been fixed,” or that they didn’t have the part, or that the necessary machine was not operational that day.

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Earlier this week, the American auto manufacturer Chrysler issued a recall of about 184,000 of its vehicles due to issues related to their airbags. According to a report by the Detroit News, the defect in the vehicles’ airbags was the same type of defect that caused Ford Motor Company to recall approximately 850,000 vehicles earlier this year.

Evidently, the recall affects 2014 models of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Durango. The problem is that the vehicles may have internal electrical short-circuits that interfere with the airbags deploying. In other words, the airbag may not deploy when it is supposed to.

In some cases, Chrysler is reporting that the issue may cause the “airbag” light to illuminate on the dashboard of the vehicle.

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Recently, Johnson & Johnson was determined to be liable to a woman after she suffered serious injury as a result of using the company’s vaginal sling product. The jury returned a verdict in the woman’s favor for $3.27 million after it determined that the product was negligently designed.

According to a report by the Daily Record, the woman had a vaginal sling implanted in order to help with her incontinence. However, shortly after the sling was installed, she noticed that sex was painful, and there was considerable pain near her groin. She then had to have another surgery later that year to remove the implant.

The company faces over 30,000 other lawsuits claiming that the negligently designed vaginal implants cause injury to the female organ and tend to make sex more painful. Many of these lawsuits have been consolidated by the federal court system in order to make the process easier on the justice system. As a result, however, the plaintiffs are usually bound by the single judge’s determinations. For example, the judge recently determined that, while women may be eligible for compensatory damages, the company cannot be required to pay punitive damages for the negligently designed products.

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In a recent report from the Associated Press, the attorney in charge of compensating the victims of the recent rash of crashes due to the GM recalls announced that there will be no limit to the amount of money GM will shell out to victims and their families. Currently, thirteen deaths have been linked to various accidents due to recalls in GM automobiles over the course of the last year. This figure, however, may be artificially low, as it relies on GM’s own admissions. It is expected that hundreds of other lawsuits will be filed once the specifics of the fund are established.

The recalls affected a number of General Motor vehicles, but were primarily centered around the Saturn Ion and the Chevrolet Cobalt. Each of these vehicles had ignition switch problems that had the potential to leave drivers with no way to control the vehicle.

The attorney in charge of compensation—who is paid by GM, but is not technically an employee of the company—says that the most recent recalls will not be eligible for the limitless compensation fund, as the company sees the most recent recalls as a separate issue. Additionally, only those lawsuits alleging problems with a vehicle’s ignition switch will be eligible for the recovery fund.

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General Motors has not had a good year. Earlier this year, it came to light that the ignition switch in several of the company’s more popular models was faulty, causing drivers to lose control of the car at full speed. At least 13 deaths have been attributed to the faulty mechanism, and countless accidents are suspected to have been caused as well. To make matters worse, evidence has shown that GM may have known about the problems and decided to continue selling the cars anyhow.

The Most Recent Round of Recalls

Earlier this week, GM announced yet another round of recalls, this time covering an additional 2.42 million vehicles. Evidently, that figure covers four different problems in various models, including:

  • Airbag problems in certain Cadillac models;
  • Shift cable problems in the Chevy Malibu and the Pontiac G6;
  • Seat belt problems in the Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse, and GMC Acadia; and
  • A problem with the GMC Sierra HD that can cause the car to catch fire.

These vehicles join the over 2 million others that have been recalled by the car manufacturing giant earlier this year.

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