Archive for October, 2009

Manufacturers’ Duty to Recall

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed a manufacturer’s duty to recall a product with a design defect and a party’s ability to introduce testimony and pleadings from other lawsuits involving the same defendant. Ford Motor Co. v. Reece, A09A0871 (September 16, 2009).  The issue arose from an accident in which a dump truck rear ended a 1994 Ford Tempo, pushing the car down a 371 foot embankment.  The driver of the car was paralyzed and died shortly after the accident.  The Plaintiffs alleged the Tempo’s seatback was defectively designed, causing it to collapse during the accident and resulting in more severe injuries to the driver than she would have otherwise suffered.  Plaintiffs asserted claims of negligence, strict liability, negligent failure to warn, and negligent failure to recall.  Ford argued the seat design was reasonable, protective and in line with industry standard at the time.  It also argued that the decedent’s injuries were due not to the seatback, but due to the car’s impact at the bottom of the embankment after it was rear ended.  The trial court awarded Plaintiffs compensatory damages only. 

Ford appealed, arguing: (1) the jury was erroneously instructed that there was a duty to recall when Georgia law imposes no such duty on manufacturers; (2) the jury instruction regarding the crash worthiness doctrine was misleading; (3) complaints from other lawsuits against Ford should not have been allowed to establish notice of the alleged seat defect; (4) deposition testimony from those lawsuits concerning the plaintiffs’ injuries should not have been admitted.  The Supreme Court of Georgia previously declined to address the question of whether a manufacturer had a duty to recall, thus the issue was unsettled.  The court of appeals held that the jury instruction regarding a manufacturer’s duty to recall was both legally erroneous and harmful.  It was erroneous because there was no common law or statutory duty to recall a product after the product has left the manufacturer’s control.  This limitation was necessary because without it, a manufacturer would be the perpetual insurer of its products safety.  Furthermore, such a duty would create a substantial economic burden that goes against public policy.  The court of appeals also concluded the erroneous instruction was harmful because it meant it could not determine if the verdict was entered on a proper basis.

The court of appeals briefly addressed the remaining issues raised by Ford on appeal.  Ford argued the crashworthiness doctrine was incomplete because it did not instruct the jury that Ford could limit its liability by demonstrating a basis for the apportionment of liability.  The court of appeals held any error in the instruction was not reversible because Ford did not present any evidence concerning apportionment of liability between the dump truck collision and the collapse of the seat, instead arguing the second crash, not the seatback, was the cause of the decedent’s injuries.  Thus the instruction regarding the crashworthiness doctrine was properly adjusted to the facts of the case.  Ford also argued the complaints from other cases should have been excluded because the Plaintiffs did not establish that the underlying incidents were substantially similar to the matter at hand.  The court of appeals disagreed, stating the Plaintiffs showed the other accidents were substantially similar because they involved Ford vehicles, rear impacts and seatbacks that deformed during the accidents.  Finally, Ford argued that the deposition testimony that was admitted was irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial.  The court of appeals disagreed, noting that although relevant evidence may damage or impair the party against which it is introduced, this does not justify its exclusion.  The testimony was admissible because it was probative concerning the injuries received under similar circumstances and was useful in enabling a jury to assess “the gravity and severity of the danger” the alleged design defect imposed.

For more information, please contact Timothy Buckley III, Esq. at (404) 633-9230.

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