In strict products liability cases, manufacturers are held to be strictly liable for their products when their defective designs injure people. While strict products liability is concerned with the nature of the products themselves and not the negligence of the manufacturers, evidence of the practices of others in the industry may be admissible for certain limited purposes as was found by the California Supreme Court in Kim v. Toyota Motor Corp., Cal. Supreme Court No. S232754 (2018).
Factual and procedural background of the case
On April 10, 2010, William Jae kim was driving a 2005 Toyota Tundra in the rain on the Angeles Forest Higwhay in the mountains. As he descended through a righthand curve at a speed of 45 to 50 mph, Kim saw another motorist who was driving in the opposite direction cross the center line into his lane. In an effort to avoid a collision, Kim steered right, left and then right again. These steering maneuvers forced Kim to lose control of his truck, and it ran off of the road and down a cliff before it came to a rest. Kim suffered severe spinal cord injuries which left him suffering from quadriplegia.
Kim and his wife filed a lawsuit against Toyota, alleging a theory of strict products liability for the company’s failure to include a safety technology called vehicle stability control on the truck as a part of its standard equipment. The VSC was offered as a part of the optional package and was included as standard equipment on the SUVs that were manufactured by Toyota during that year. Prior to trial, the Kims’ attorney filed a motion in limine in which the Kims sought to have evidence about the practices of Toyota’s competitors suppressed at the trial. However, during a hearing, the attorney stated that the Kims didn’t want the evidence suppressed but instead wanted the court to include a limiting instruction that would have allowed evidence about the fact that the competitors didn’t include VSC as standard equipment on their trucks, leading Toyota to likewise not include it.
The Kims argued that Toyota knew that trucks and SUVs both have similar traction control problems. While the company included VSC on its SUVs, it did not do so for its Toyota Tundra trucks. The jury was given an instruction on the risk-benefit theory, which weighs the dangers presented by a product’s design against the benefits provided by the design. The jury returned with a verdict in favor of Toyota, and the Kims appealed. On appeal, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny evidence of industry customs and practice. Since there were contradictory lines of cases, the California Supreme Court agreed to take the case on a writ of certiorari.
Issue: Did the trial court err by admitting industry customs and practice evidence for the risk-benefits analysis of the allegedly defective design of the 2005 Tundra?
Under the court’s decision in Baker v. Lull Engineering Co., 20 Cal.3d 413 (1978), designs are defective under the risk-benefits test if a jury determines that the design presented preventable danger that was excessive. This means that the jury would need to find that the danger of a design outweighs the benefits of it. The Court of Appeals identified competing lines of cases. In one line, courts had held that industry customs and practice evidence is inadmissible in strict products liability cases. In the other line of cases, the courts had held that the industry customs and practice evidence was admissible for the purposes of the risk-benefits test. The Court of Appeals held that it may be admissible, depending on the purpose for which it is offered and the nature of the evidence. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to settle the conflict between the lines of cases.
Rule: All relevant evidence is admissible.
When plaintiffs bring strict products liability claims under a risk-benefit theory, they must first prove that the design defect that they allege existed proximately caused their injuries. They must then prove that the preventable danger of the design outweighed the benefits that the design offered. Under Cal. Evid. Code § 351, all evidence that is relevant is considered to be admissible unless it is prohibited by statute. Evidence that is relevant is evidence that either might prove or disprove that a fact that is disputed is important for the action’s determination. The question in this case was whether the industry customs and practices of not including VSC as standard equipment on 2005 trucks was relevant for the determination of the risk-benefits strict products liability test.
Some appellate decisions had previously held that industry customs and practice evidence is always irrelevant and inadmissible in strict products liability cases. However, other appellate decisions had held that industry customs and practice evidence may be relevant in the determination of the risk-benefits test of products liability. The Supreme Court first considered the line of cases that had found that industry customs and practice evidence is always inadmissible because the manufacturers’ compliance or failure to comly with industry customs and practices are irrelevant in cases of strict products liability. Those courts reasoned that strict liability is concerned not with the manufacturers’ conduct but rather with the nature of the products themselves.
However, the court noted that under Barker, some industry customs and practice evidence may be relevant when juries are trying to decide the risk and benefits of different design trade-offs. The Supreme Court also noted that the Kims introduced similar evidence themselves at the trial so that they could argue that Toyota didn’t include the VSC technology as a part of its standard safety package on the 2005 Tundra because the company could bolster its profits since its competitors were also not including it. The court found that industry customs and practices evidence could be admissible for purposes of the risk-benefits test of a strict products liability action.
Since the court found that the industry customs and practices evidence regarding the competitors’ failure to include the VSC in their trucks was admissible, it affirmed the Court of Appeals decision, meaning that the jury verdict for the defendant was upheld.
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Products liability cases can be very complex. If you have suffered a serious injury because of a defective product, you may benefit by getting the help of an experienced attorney at the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and to learn about your ptoential claim.