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Manufacturing Defect or Slip and Fall in Texas?

wing-chicken-1264365-m (1)In some Texas personal injury cases, it is difficult to know which theory of recovery to pursue. In Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation v. Mansfield, a manufacturer appealed from a judgment in a product liability case that on the surface might have looked like a slip and fall. A jury had found that the product, which was a bag of frozen chicken, had a manufacturing defect when it was sold to a retail grocer.

While shopping at the retail grocer, a customer slipped and fell on liquid that leaked through the defective bag of chicken. The store manager helped her get up, and she stated she thought she was okay and wouldn’t need an ambulance. The manager filled out an accident report on the store form, noting that the customer had slipped on blood that came through a leak in the bag of chicken while she was pushing her grocery cart.

At trial. the store manager testified that he noticed there was a trail of liquid spots behind the plaintiff’s cart just after the accident, and that he’d inspected the bag as well. He took the bag to the meat department, noticing that the bag was open, not just torn or cut. The meat department manager and his assistant also noticed that the corner of the bag was unsealed. The manager testified there was an opening at the bag’s seam, a defective seal, which allowed the liquid to leak.

A corporate representative for the chicken manufacturer testified that the manufacturer didn’t allow bags that were not sealed to leave the facility. He also testified about the manufacturer’s quality assurance programs and how the chicken bags were individually inspected by employees before being shipped. According to him, there were also quality assurance inspectors who did a random check of different bags before the shipment left, although he acknowledged that fewer than 1% of individual bags got a visual inspection by a quality assurance inspector.

He was asked to state his opinion about why there was an opening in the particular bag at issue and admitted that if the grocery staff were telling the truth, the bag had a bad seal. He also testified that the packaging facility hadn’t reported any problems with bag integrity.

Several witnesses testified about the plaintiff’s treatment after her fall, including surgery to both knees and her lower back. By the time of trial, she continued to have some bad days with regard to her knees and had less pain in her back. However, she couldn’t do the activities she enjoyed before falling and had to take anti-depressants, muscle relaxers, and painkillers.

With regard to future medical damages, she testified that her neurosurgeon had told her she might need another surgery down the road. However, she had no forthcoming appointment with her neurosurgeon. She didn’t make any statements about how long she might need to take medications, or how long into the future she would need physical therapy. Instead, she testified she thought she would keep improving with therapy, and she didn’t testify about plans to undergo more surgery.

Neither of her treating doctors testified about her prognosis either. Her neurosurgeon did testify that in the future she would be susceptible to back strain and might experience accelerated disc degeneration, which might require more surgery. He did not go into greater detail, nor did he testify as to the cost of any future surgeries. The orthopedic surgeon who had performed arthroscopic surgery was also not asked to express an opinion about future surgery.

The jury determined her injuries were caused by a manufacturing defect in the bag as well as grocer negligence. It assigned 65% responsibility for her injuries to the manufacturer and 35% responsibility to the grocer. The jury awarded damages that totaled $679,868. The trial court reduced the award to account for the grocer’s pretrial settlement and awarded her $532,322.

On appeal, the manufacturer attacked the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting, among other things, the manufacturing defect claim. The appellate court explained that, in a manufacturing defect case, the jury would need to decide whether a product was defective and unreasonably dangerous at the time it was sold by the defendant. There is a manufacturing defect when a product deviates from specifications such that it is unreasonably dangerous. The plaintiff must prove a product was defective when it left the manufacturer, and that the defect made it unreasonably dangerous.

The appellate court explained that both direct and circumstantial evidence may be used to establish that a manufacturer sold a product with a manufacturing defect. In this case, there were lay witnesses who testified sufficiently to allow the jury to infer there was a bag with a defective seal. The grocer had used coolers, rather than freezers, which would allow a partial thaw, but this did not constitute an unforeseeable misuse of the product.

However, the appellate court did agree with the manufacturer that the evidence was insufficiently developed to establish the plaintiff would need an additional $50,000 for future medical expenses. Specifically, the testimony about a future surgery was too speculative. The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the court, conditioned on the plaintiff remitting the jury award for future medical damages to a sum of $20,000.

It can be challenging to prove whose fault an accident was when multiple parties may have been responsible. In the case above, for example, even though the plaintiff slipped and fell, there may have been no actual or constructive notice to the store that the bag was dripping before the plaintiff’s fall, and in that case, a premises liability theory of recovery would have failed. It was crucial to her case that a product liability theory be pursued. If you’re hurt due to someone else’s actions or omissions, the experienced San Antonio product liability attorneys at Carabin & Shaw are familiar with multiple different areas of personal injury law, and we can develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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