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Texas Supreme Court Rules on Design Defect Case

storm-clouds-brewing-1446215-mThe Texas Supreme Court recently decided Genie Industries, Inc. v. Ricky Matak, a product liability case. In Texas, manufacturers are not liable for design defects unless there is a safer alternative design and the defect makes the product unreasonably dangerous such that its risks outweigh its usefulness.

The case arose when a worker was supported 40 feet in the air by an aerial lift made by the defendant. The base of the lift was small and on wheels, and an electromechanical interlock prevented the platform from being elevated unless all outriggers were in place and leveling jacks were pressed to the ground. Others tried to move the lift with the worker on it. There were signs on the machine and instructions in the user manual that warned the machine could tip over, causing the worker to fall from a great height. The worker in this case did fall and died of massive head injuries. There have been only three reported accidents like the one in this case.

A wrongful death and survivor suit was brought by the decedent’s survivors. The jury determined that the lift had a design defect. The manufacturer appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed, holding there was enough evidence to support the finding of a design defect. The manufacturer asked the Texas Supreme Court to review.

The Court explained that products liability law doesn’t guarantee a product is risk-free. Instead, liability is imposed for those that are unreasonably dangerous to the user. In this case, the manufacturer argued that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven there was a safer alternative design for the lift, or that the risk of the decedent’s accident outweighed the utility of the lift.

The Court further explained that a safer alternative design is one that prevents or significantly reduces the risk of injury, doesn’t substantially impair a product’s usefulness, and is both economically and technologically feasible at the time. The design doesn’t need to be built and tested, but it must be capable of being developed. The alternative can’t impose an equal or greater risk of harm under other circumstances than the one that caused the accident at issue.

In this case, the plaintiff provided two pieces of evidence of a safer alternative design. The first was three alternative designs put forth by an aerial lift expert. The Court explained that one of these alternatives had added dangers, even if it could have prevented some of the decedent’s injuries in this case. It also objected to the other proposed designs, but it concluded that there was a scintilla of evidence, however weak, to support the alternative designs that would have been safer for the decedent, wouldn’t have been less safe in other circumstances, wouldn’t have substantially impaired the usefulness of the lift, and would have been economically and technologically feasible.

The manufacturer also argued there was no evidence that the aerial lift was unreasonably dangerous. A defective design makes a product unreasonably dangerous when a product’s risks outweigh its usefulness in light of the use of the product weighed against the gravity and likelihood that someone will be injured using it, the availability of a substitute product that meets the same need and is not unsafe or too expensive, the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe nature of the product without adversely affecting its usefulness or significantly increasing the costs, the user’s ability to anticipate the inherent dangers in the product and how avoidable they are, and an ordinary consumer’s expectations. Generally, this balancing test is for a jury to perform.

The Court concluded that the utility was undisputed, and that the risk is only that a user will ignore instructions in the user manual and on the lift. It reasoned that the risk of danger was obvious. It concluded that the lift was not unreasonably dangerous. The Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment.

Design defect cases are complex and challenging, and they typically require expert testimony. The experienced San Antonio product liability attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to help you. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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