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Did you know that Justia offers numerous free resources to make the law more accessible and help people better understand the foundations of a variety of legal areas? In this post, you can learn more about the information available in Justia’s Products Liability Center.
Among the many free resources that Justia provides to the public are Justia Legal Guides on dozens of diverse practice areas. In a series of posts, we will continue to explain how someone coming to our site might use each of these guides to understand the laws and procedures in a certain area.
Forty-one years ago this month, the Court of Appeals of California found that the Ford Motor Company had knowingly endangered thousands of people by rushing to release the Pinto, a car now infamous for bursting into flames. The plaintiffs in the case, Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, sued Ford for their injuries resulting from one such incident, arguing in part under a products liability theory that Ford defectively designed the Pinto.
The Ford Pinto in Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.
Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company concerned a May 1972 rear-end collision involving a Ford Pinto driven by Lilly Gray. Mrs. Gray, joined by 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw, was changing lanes on a California freeway when her Ford Pinto unexpectedly stalled and was rear-ended by another driver. According to the plaintiffs’ expert, the collision caused the Pinto’s gas tank to be punctured by a flange or one of the bolts on the differential housing and spray fuel into the passenger compartment, resulting in a massive fire.
Mrs. Gray died from her injuries a few days after the accident, while Richard Grimshaw suffered severe burns and disfigurement. Grimshaw’s case went to the jury on theories of negligence and strict liability, while the Grays’ case went on the theory of strict liability alone. Grimshaw was awarded about $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $125 million in punitive damages, later reduced to $3.5 million. The Grays were awarded $559,680 in compensatory damages.
Ford had crash tested the Pinto during its short, 25-month development process and learned that its fuel tank could be punctured and cause excess fuel leakage in crashes at speeds of just over 20 miles per hour. It would have cost Ford about $15 per vehicle to remedy many of the Pinto’s design defects related to the fuel tank system, but a former Ford engineer and crash program executive testified, and other evidence corroborated, that management decided not to make the necessary changes in order to save money.
Design Defects and Products Liability
A large part of the plaintiffs’ case in Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company was based on the theory of a design defect. Design defect claims are one of many topics covered in Justia’s Products Liability Center. Generally, a design defect claim seeks to prove that a flaw in a product’s design made it unreasonably unsafe for consumers. In contrast to a manufacturing defect claim, a design defect claim seeks to show that the product was manufactured as intended but that the intended design was flawed. The plaintiffs in Grimshaw did just that by introducing evidence that Ford made a conscious decision to forgo an array of design adjustments that would have made the car much safer.
In Grimshaw, the jury was instructed to consider whether the vehicle’s design caused it to fail to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. The jury concluded that the Ford Pinto was defectively designed based on this standard. Some courts also employ the risk-utility test when determining whether a product is defectively designed. Under this test, a product’s design is defective if it would have been practically and economically feasible for the defendant to implement a safer design. The jury might decide this question by considering factors such as the likelihood and seriousness of the potential injury, the cost of adopting a safer design, and the feasibility and consequences of the alternative design.
Damages in Products Liability Cases
Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company involved two types of damages: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages strive to make the plaintiff “whole” by putting them in as close a position as possible to where they were before the loss occurred. Compensatory damages may be economic or non-economic. Economic damages may include compensation for things such as medical expenses, lost income, or property damage. Non-economic damages may include compensation for pain and suffering or loss of consortium. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are meant to punish the defendant for particularly egregious or intentional wrongdoing. Punitive damages are not directly related to the harm that the plaintiff suffered.
Among other things, Ford argued in its appeal that the $3.5 million punitive damages award was inappropriate and excessive. However, the court found that the punitive damages award was proper. It noted that punitive damages are appropriate when companies demonstrate a conscious disregard for public safety. The court suggested that while compensatory damages awards may be enough to deter wrongful behavior in certain cases, punitive damages may be necessary to deter such conduct by manufacturers that decide that it would be more profitable to factor in the cost of compensatory damages awards as the “cost of doing business” and decline to fix the defect.
Further Topics in the Products Liability Center
The three main types of products liability claims are manufacturing defects, design defects, and failures to warn. These claims are usually brought as strict liability claims, meaning that the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant acted carelessly, but only that the defendant caused the injury. However, strict liability claims are often coupled with negligence claims that may follow the same general facts and arguments. For instance, a plaintiff pursuing a claim under a manufacturing defect theory of liability, whether strict liability or negligence, would need to prove that the product as manufactured deviated from its intended design and caused the plaintiff’s injury. Similarly, a plaintiff pursuing a claim under a failure-to-warn theory of liability would need to show that the product’s instructions were not appropriate or failed to warn consumers of the dangers of the product.
Breach of warranty is another, less common products liability claim. A plaintiff may bring a breach of warranty claim if the product failed to perform in a specific way or did not meet a specific standard. The three types of warranties are express warranties, implied warranties of merchantability, and implied warranties of fitness. Express warranties are those made by a seller about a particular product, often in a sales contract. Implied warranties of merchantability are guarantees that the product does not have a design defect, a manufacturing defect, or improper instructions or warnings. Finally, implied warranties of fitness relate to instances in which a seller knows that a consumer is relying on their expertise to choose a product that will perform adequately for a specific purpose.
When bringing a products liability claim, a plaintiff must consider things such as whom to sue, when to sue, the elements of a claim, and damages. Defendants in products liability cases may include not only manufacturers but also contractors, consultants, and retailers. However, an injured potential plaintiff will have only so long to sue any of these potential defendants. Statutes of limitations vary from state to state, but are usually between one and four years for products liability claims. When the same product is involved in more than one case, those cases may be consolidated under the multidistrict litigation system.
Justia’s Products Liability Center provides a readable source for ordinary people to understand key issues in products liability law. Individuals who believe that they may have a viable products liability case may wish to consult with an experienced products liability lawyer. Individuals who work with a products liability lawyer in their state may reap the benefits of the lawyer’s industry connections and understanding of particular state laws. However, Justia’s Products Liability Center serves as a valuable starting point. Like the rest of Justia Legal Guides, the Products Liability Center makes the law transparent and accessible to all.