Product Liability Alert: Evidence of Apportionment of Fault Admissible in Strict Products Liability Action

In Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc. (No. B239761, filed March 17, 2014), the California Court of Appeal for the Second District held that a trial court must permit a defendant, in a products liability action, to present evidence of apportionment of fault among settling and non-settling entities. The case involved an automobile collision in which the plaintiff was struck from behind, causing the driver’s seat to recline and propel plaintiff into the back seat where she struck her head. Plaintiff was left quadriplegic as a result.

Plaintiff brought suit against the driver who caused the accident, the Nissan entities who manufactured the car plaintiff was driving, Johnson Controls, Inc. (“Johnson”), Ikeda Engineering Corporation (“Ikeda”), Vintec Co. (“Vintec”), and Autoliv ASP, Inc., who designed and manufactured the driver’s seat of the vehicle plaintiff was driving, and against Faurecia Automotive Seating, Inc. who manufactured the recliner mechanism of plaintiff’s vehicle’s front seat. Ikeda participated in the design of the driver’s seat and Vintec manufactured the driver’s seat. Johnson manufactured the seat belt for the driver’s seat of plaintiff’s vehicle in accordance with Nissan’s design. Prior to trial, plaintiff settled with the defendant driver, the Nissan defendants, the Autoliv defendants, and Faurecia Automotive Seating, Inc. Plaintiff elected to proceed to trial solely on a cause of action for strict products liability against Ikeda and Vintec. Pursuant to a stipulation, Johnson agreed it would be legally responsible for damages awarded to plaintiff at trial based upon the actions of Vintec or Ikeda.

At trial, the court precluded Vintec and Ikeda from offering evidence that: (1) plaintiff would not have been injured if her vehicle’s seat belt was designed in a different manner by Nissan; (2) Nissan chose the manufacturer of the recliner mechanism and required defendants to use that manufacturer and that part in the seat; and (3) The other defendants had already reached settlements with plaintiff.

The jury returned a special verdict in plaintiff’s favor, allocating 80% of fault to the driver defendant and 20% fault to Ikeda and Vintec. Johnson, by virtue of its stipulation with Ikeda and Vintec, appealed. Johnson contended the trial court erred in precluding evidence that would have allowed the jury to apportion fault among Nissan and the component part manufacturers – Autoliv and Faurecia.

The Court of Appeal began its analysis by acknowledging California courts have permitted comparative fault in certain situations in strict products liability cases. See Daly v. General Motors Corp. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 725, 736-737; See also Safeway Stores, Inc. v. Nest-Kart (1978) 21 Cal.3d 322,330. The Court also noted Proposition 51, passed in 1986, made liability for noneconomic damages several only instead of joint and several. The Court then addressed a split of authority on the applicability of Proposition 51’s application to strict products liability actions.

In the first line of cases, it was held Proposition 51 does not apply in a strict products liability action when a single defective product produced a single injury to the plaintiff. Under this line of cases, all defendants in the stream of commerce of that single product remain jointly and severally liable. See Wimberly v. Derby Cycle Corp. (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 618, 633. The second line of cases holds Proposition 51 applies where there are multiple products that caused the plaintiff’s injuries and where there is evidence that provides a basis to allocate fault for noneconomic damages between defective products. See Wilson v. John Crane, Inc. (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 847, 852.

The Court of Appeal indicated the present case did not fit within either line of cases because: (1) although plaintiff’s injuries may be viewed as indivisible, those injuries may not have been caused by a single defective product; and (2) although there was evidence plaintiff may have suffered her injuries as a result of multiple defective products, there was no evidence that her injuries were divisible for purposes of allocating fault for her non-economic damages.

The Court reasoned the “evil sought to be eliminated” by Proposition 51 was the imposition of liability for noneconomic damages far out of proportion to the defendant’s share of responsibility for those damages. The Court then held there was no reason to believe the “evil sought to be eliminated” was any less or different where the defendant was a manufacturer held strictly liable for a defective product, particularly when Proposition 51 would unquestionably apply to a manufacturer held liable for negligence. Thus, the court reasoned that the trial court’s refusal to permit Ikeda and Vintec to introduce evidence of the comparative fault of Nissan, Autoliv and Faurecia constituted error. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and remanded the case for retrial only on the issue of apportionment.

The Romine decision essentially endorsed and broadened the holding of the Wilson line of cases in determining Proposition 51 applies to a products liability action even where there does not exist evidence that plaintiff’s injuries were divisible for purposes of allocating fault for non-economic damages. Going forward, defendant manufacturers, being sued on a claim of strict products liability, will be entitled to offer evidence at trial that other products (or other component parts of products) were comparatively at fault for the resulting non-economic damages suffered by plaintiff and attempt to apportion fault accordingly.

This document is intended to provide you with information about product liability law related developments. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions.

March 20, 2014