Dogs: Man’s Best Friend Or Unreasonably Dangerous Product?

According to a report from the Clinton Herald, a lawsuit has been filed against the Clinton (Iowa) Humane Society after a dog adopted from the agency bit a 15-month old child. The dog, which was possibly a pitbull-mix, was received by the Iowa Humane Society after it was saved from being euthanized at a Louisiana shelter.  The suit asserts product liability, negligence and breach of warranty claims against the Humane Society as well as a strict liability claims against the adopted dog parents, Kris and Ashley Greene.  The theory against the Humane Society is premised on the notion that the agency failed to warn the Greene’s of the risks of transitioning a dog from a shelter to a home and of a dog’s potential dangerous propensities. The plaintiff claims that the lack of instructions or warnings renders the dog not reasonably safe.

We here at Abnormal Use find this suit interesting to say the least. While dogs are technically property in the eyes of the law (in most jurisdictions), treating them as products for product liability purposes creates some significant problems. Most notably, unlike traditional products, dogs are living, breathing creatures capable of independent thinking and actions. When a product leaves the manufacturer, we know how it is supposed to “act.” When it does not act as it was intended, it is typically because of some defect (either in its manufacturing or its design). That’s product liability. On the other hand, dogs are all different.  No two dogs are the same either due to nature, nurture, or some combination of the two. We can never know for sure just how a dog is going to act in any situation. So how do we regulate whether a dog acted as intended?

To be fair, the case here is premised on a failure to warn, not that the dog was “defective” per se. We can certainly appreciate the need to disclose if a dog is known to have a checkered past or is otherwise prone to violence. But wouldn’t a simple negligence theory do the trick to protect against these types of harms?

No need to bring product liability principles into it.

Friday Links

As you might know, we here at Abnormal Use occasionally plan CLE programs for organizations of which we are members. Our editor, Jim Dedman, serves as the vice-chair of the Mecklenburg County Bar’s Civil Litigation Section. As such, he’s planned a program which might interest. No, no, it’s not another one of those programs about how to use the Internet to find incriminating impeachment materials. Rather, it’s about the practical aspects of subpoenaing social media companies and authenticating digital evidence. This is real world stuff you need to know for discovery and trial. The program features Keith Lee, the author of the Associate’s Mind blog and the “Social Media Subpoena Guide,” and Tim Flowers of the Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section of the United States Department of Justice who will discuss authentication of digital evidence. It should be a doozy of an event and offer some real practical advice we don’t usually see in these types of seminars. If you’re in Charlotte on Thursday, April 20, join them! For more information on the program, click here.

Our tweet of the week comes from one of our firm’s partners who offers his views on the perils of a multi-jurisdictional practice.

Costco v. Titleist: The Golf Ball War You Wouldn’t Expect

Last year, Costco began selling golf balls. As the largest American membership-only warehouse club, Costco’s introduction of a new product such as a piece of sporting equipment would not ordinarily be noteworthy or otherwise unusual. Except that the balls became a bit of a cult phenomenon and flew off the shelves and the company completely sold out of the product by January. The golf balls are now selling for insane amount on Ebay. So what gives? The Costco balls are actually manufactured by South Korea’s Nassau Golf – the same company that manufactures TaylorMade golf balls. Nassau apparently unloaded some of its balls to Costco. Costco then branded the balls with a Kirkland Signature logo and sold them for $29.99 per TWO dozen. After golfers realized the balls’ performance was on par with some higher end balls, word began to spread and the rest is history.

While golfers may have been delighted with Costco’s venture into the golf ball industry, some golf ball manufacturers were not. According to a report from seattlepi.com, Acushnet, maker of Titleist golf balls, sent a cease and desist letter Costco earlier this year, alleging that the Costco balls infringed upon eleven of the company’s patents. In addition, Acushnet alleged that Costco had engaged in false advertising on account of the Kirkland Signature guarantee that all Kirkland products “will meet or exceed the quality standards of leading national brands.”

In response, Costco has filed a declaratory judgment action against Acushnet in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. As a preemptive strike, Costco seeks a judicial declaration that Costco was not violating Acushnet’s patents and has not engaged in false advertising. According to Costco, while others (including reviewers and golf professionals) have compared the Costco balls to the higher-end Titleist balls, Costco has never done so (at least not publicly).

In a written statement published by Golf World, Costco stated:

We have asked the Court to protect our right to continue to sell our Kirkland Signature golf ball against challenges made by Acushnet under patent and advertising laws. . . .The success of the ball with our members and the favorable comments it has received from reputable reviewers apparently have caused Acushnet to believe that our ball directly competes with the Titleist Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls. … Our golf ball will go back on sale in early April, but supplies are limited.

We here at Abnormal Use have never played with the Costco golf balls and, to be honest, with our golf games there would be no discernible differences found with an equipment change. Assuming that the balls actually live up to the hype, we understand why Acushnet may be upset with the competition. If Acushnet is really concerned about patents, however, we would think its real beef would be with Nassau who made the balls in the first place. But our best guess is that this matter is not really about patents at all. The real issue is that Acushnet does not want someone to undercut its premium price point. It is for this reason Acushnet has filed suit against a number of smaller companies who produce economy balls in the past. At least on the surface, it does not appear that Acushnet is concerned with companies like Nassau (a/k/a Taylor Made) who sell golf balls which compete at the same premium price point. Acushnet knows it has that marketplace cornered. But let someone sell a competing product for a percentage of the price, now Acushnet has a problem.

We are curious to see how this one plays out. We are hoping for quick resolution by April, so we can pick up a dozen of those Costco balls for the summer golf season.

Friday Links

John Cuttino, a shareholder from our Columbia, South Carolina office, was recently featured in Wofford Today.

If you like, you can read Texans for Lawsuit Reform Foundation’s new report, “The Story of Asbestos Litigation in Texas & Its National Consequences.”

Remember on “L.A. Law” when Rosalind Shays stepped into the empty elevator shaft, sending her to her death? That episode aired 26 years ago in March of 1991. By the way, with all of these sequels and reboots, how come the networks have not revisited “L.A. Law”? The series ended in May of 1994, and despite the fact that the cast reunited briefly for a television movie in 2002, no one meaningfully discusses this show these days. We here at Abnormal Use were definitely fans of the show back in the day (although we never purchased – or even knew about – “L.A. Law: The Computer Game” – which you can read about here).

Did you catch GWB’s own Lindsay Joyner on television in South Carolina this week? If not, let us direct your attention to our tweet of the week!

Misled By A Beer’s Label: A New Lawsuit Over “Hawaiian” Beer

As reported by West Hawaii Today, a new class-action lawsuit has been filed against Craft Brew Alliance, Inc. and Kona Brewing Company over some allegedly deceptive advertising. Specifically, the lead plaintiff alleges that he purchased a 12-pack of Kona’s Longboard Island Lager under the belief that the product was brewed in Hawaii, a suspicion based, at least in part, on the beach and surfer depicted on the bottle’s label. The lager, however, is apparently brewed stateside – a fact, that if known by the plaintiff, would have apparently dissuaded him from his purchase.  The suit, filed in a federal court in California, asserts a violation of California business laws, common law fraud and misrepresentation, as well as several other causes of action.

According to its website, Kona began brewing beer back in 1995 at a brewery in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. That facility still produces beer. However, its bottled beer and mainland draft is produced at several breweries located within the mainland of the United States. The list of brewing locations is included on the labels of Kona beers.

We here at Abnormal Use find this lawsuit intriguing on several levels.

First, there is nothing on the Longboard Island Lager packaging (as shown below) that specifically says that it is brewed in Hawaii.

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Admittedly, the name “Kona” coupled with the depicted surfers catching waves in front of a mountain certainly offers a Hawaii-vibe. That said, Olive Garden also attempts to resemble an authentic Italian bistro, but no one is accusing it of leading its patrons to believe that its food is authentic Italian. Kona does not represent that its beer is brewed in Hawaii. Rather, in our opinion, Kona merely represents that its product is a beer best-consumed on a beach vacation a la Corona or Landshark.

Secondly, even if the plaintiffs can prove that Kona implicitly represented that the beer was brewed in Hawaii, how have the plaintiffs actually been damaged? We consider ourselves beer snobs. As such, we have never viewed the quality of beer to hinge upon the location of the brewing facility. (This is not wine, after all).  While we do enjoy certain beers from certain regions of the country, our preference  has more to do with the breweries themselves than the region in which they are located.  A good beer may be brewed in California, but it is not a good beer because it was brewed in California.

We are guessing that the plaintiffs actually purchased the Longboard Lager because they like the way it tastes.  And, they like the way it tastes regardless of whether it was brewed in Hawaii, Oregon, or Tennessee. To claim otherwise is either completely disingenuous or a display a beer snobbiness than even we can’t comprehend.

Automotive Safety on Full Display at the Chicago Auto Show

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In February, my wife and I attended the Chicago Auto Show, mostly out of my fetish for new cars. The show is the largest in North America, and it is the longest running auto expo in North America. Nearly 1,000 vehicles are on display, and hundreds of thousands visit each year. I love auto expos because of the opportunity to experience the newest innovations and varieties our automotive industry has to offer. In the last decade, the industry has truly innovated the way we drive. From the integration of technology, new and pioneering transmissions, increased fuel economy and increased safety, a car manufactured in the last decade is dramatically improved over cars made just ten years ago. See these dramatic before and after ‘poses’ by Buick and Chevrolet.

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Perhaps one of the greatest innovations of the industry is the integration of safety features that used to be available only in the most expensive brands. For example, the 2017 Honda Civic boasts curtain airbags, land departure assistance systems, backup camera, a camera in the mirrors that monitors your blind spot, adaptive cruise control, and an automatic braking system to prevent crashes. The Honda Civic starts at $18,740. The difference in safety features does not proportionally increase when stepping into the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan starting at $96,600.00. While luxury car lines such as Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, and Volvo innovated many of these safety features, you no longer have to spend big to protect your family. Cars have never been safer.

Products liability claims routinely result from defects in automobiles. We can all recall television stories regarding Takata airbags, General Motors and their faulty ignition switches, rapidly accelerating Toyotas, exploding Pintos, and SUV rollovers. But the great news is, automakers are more focused on safety than ever, and hopefully as a result, products liability claims in the auto industry will decrease.

On a more fun note, automakers are trying their best quench the American thirst for SUV ownership while providing top fuel economy. Several years ago, the introduction of the “crossover” to the American market gave us ‘SUVs’ on a car platform. And since that time, ‘crossovers’ have gotten smaller and smaller and less SUV-like. My wife and I were shopping at the show, looking for an SUV that could house a growing family. What I did not expect is that my wife would fall in love with the new Volvo station wagon. She insists it is not a station wagon. Why? Because Volvo calls it a “crossover.” Much like an American male that resists to the fullest extent possible to purchase a minivan, she cannot bear the label of “station wagon.”

Therefore, I will let the readers decide. Crossover or station wagon?

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New McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit: Still Trying To Relive the Liebeck Litigation

According to reports, a Michigan man has filed suit against McDonald’s, alleging that he was burned by hot coffee at drive-through. The allegations in the case go a little something like this:

On December 5, 2016, Carl Honeycutt, while a front seat passenger in a vehicle operated by his friend, made his way to a McDonald’s drive-through in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Honeycutt ordered a cup of coffee. The McDonald’s employee handed the cup of coffee to the driver of the car who, in turn, handed the cup to Honeycutt. When Honeycutt took hold of the cup, the cup’s lid popped off and coffee  spilled onto Honeycutt’s chest. As a result, Honeycutt allegedly sustained second-degree burns.

In an interview with M Live, Honeycutt’s attorney, Joshua Cecil, stated that he is was well aware of the infamous Stella Liebeck lawsuit. But does this case really have anything in common with its infamous predecessor? Cecil seems to hope so. Cecil argued that the Liebeck lawsuit prompted McDonald’s to take steps to maintain its coffee at a reasonable temperature, but independent franchisees may not always follow through. Keep in mind, however, that there is no information as to the actual temperature of Honeycutt’s coffee or whether its temperature was outside the bounds of McDonald’s corporate policies. (Also, there is thing we have heard about a time or two that coffee, by its nature, is meant to be served hot).

The lawsuit raises two theories of negligence: (1) failing to secure the lid to the cup and (2) the coffee was served at an “excessive and unreasonable temperature.” The latter clearly paves a way down the Liebeck path. However, Liebeck verdict aside, the former may be the better path to any recovery rather than fight through the 20+ years of rhetoric over whether a company can be held liable for serving a hot product at a hot temperature within industry standards.

Let It Be! Lawsuit Between Beatle Son and Parents of My Cousin Vinny Actress Comes to an End

According to a report from the New York Post, a lawsuit over a rotting tree in Greenwich Village has settled after two years of litigation. You might not think such a case is a big deal. It is true that tree litigation does not normally grace the pages of Abnormal Use. This case, however, is different. Really different. Why, you say? Well,  the litigants just so happen to be the son of a Beatle and the parents of My Cousin Vinny’s Mona Lisa Vito (aka Marissa Tomei).

Back in 2015, Gary and Addie Tomei filed suit against Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, claiming that a rotting ailanthus tree on Lennon’s property had encroached upon their property, causing damage to their 4000 square foot townhouse (purchased for $9.5 million back in 2008). Specifically, they alleged that the roots of the 60-foot-tall tree cracked their front stoop, broke the iron railings, and encroached upon their basement. The Tomeis sought the removal of the tree plus a hefty $10 million in damages. In a total boss move, Lennon demanded that the Tomeis alter the entrance of their multi-million dollar townhouse to accommodate his encroaching tree.

Now, the lawsuit which pitted litigants associated with two of our favorite things against each other has come to an end. The exact details of the settlement are confidential. However, it is known that the tree at the center of the dispute was cut down last month. To us, it sure sounds like the son of a Beattle lost out to the parent’s of the out-of-work hairdresser.

Wal-Mart’s Venture Into Craft Beer Under Fire

According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, a new class action lawsuit has been filed in Ohio against Wal-Mart, accusing the retail giant of shady beer sales. Specifically, the suit takes issue with Wal-Mart’s sale of its own line of “craft” beer in collaboration with Trouble Brewing. The problem, according to the complaint, is that Trouble Brewing does not really exist. In reality, the Wal-Mart brew is brewed on a contract basis by Genessee Brewing, which is owned by North American Breweries and produces more beer than would warrant the “craft” moniker. Plaintiffs allege that Wal-Mart has created a “wholesale fiction,” placing its beer on the shelves around other legitimate craft beers, to deceive consumers into purchasing craft beer at a higher, inflated price.

So what really is a “craft” beer? The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as “small, independent, and traditional.” To qualify, a craft brewery must produce less than 6 million barrels of beer annually, be less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewery, and make beer using only traditional or innovative brewing ingredients. While Genessee isn’t Anheuser Busch InBev or MillerCoors, the “Trouble Brewing” brand, assuming the allegations in the complaint are true, certainly doesn’t sound like a “small, independent, and traditional” beer – especially when considering the fact that it is backed by one of the world’s largest companies in Wal-Mart. And, we are guessing Genessee doesn’t offer Trouble Brewing tours and flights of the entire Trouble Brewing line over a game of cornhole.

It should be noted that the Trouble Brewing beers do not specifically identify themselves as “craft” on their packaging. However, as a senior buyer for Wal-Mart told the Chicago Tribune in an interview, “We were intentional about designing a package that conveyed a look and feel you’d expect of craft beer.” If only catchy packaging were all it took to make a craft beer.

As avid beer drinkers, we are certainly sensitive to craft beer deception. As such, we can empathize with the plaintiffs on this ground. As defense lawyers, though, we must assert assumption of risk as an affirmative defense. Something about Wal-Mart and the purchase of craft beer just doesn’t sound right in the first place. With so many craft breweries, growler stations, and local bottle shoppes popping up on every street corner, it has never been easier to pick up a craft brew. Wal-Mart certainly isn’t the place we would think of when it comes to trying out a new beer.

Virtual Reality Headsets: Fun New Toy Or Liability Nightmare?

Being a kid at heart, I always hopeful that my Christmas gifts will include a toy. Knowing that to be the case, my parents delivered this year by gifting me a virtual reality headset. Admittedly, I was perplexed when I opened the present. I was aware of the concept – a stereoscopic display and head motion tracking sensors, immersing users in a virtual reality experience – but I did not comprehend the appeal. I assumed the VR experience would have about as much flare as 3D, the first five minutes of fun is outweighed by the doldrums of wearing a pair of ridiculous glasses. But, hey, I got my toy. Why not give it a shot?

Well, I did. Now, I totally understand the VR appeal. Without getting into all of the technical (which I admittedly don’t understand anyways), VR delivers in all of the ways that 3D does not. While 3D movie watching gives added depth of picture and certain effects that “jump out” at the audience, VR puts the user directly into the scene. The problem with 3D alone is that regardless of the effect, the audience is always watching the film on a flat, two-dimensional screen (even if it is a really, really big IMAX screen). VR takes away that limitation, giving the user a full 360 degrees of 3D viewing pleasure.

Technology aside, the biggest draw of VR is the vast array of content. On my first day of use, I cage-dived with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, walked through the streets of Paris, participated in a fight with the Suicide Squad, and stood in a dinosaur habitat in Jurassic Park – from my living room. Chances are that if there is something you want to see or do, there is probably a virtual experience waiting for you with a VR headset.

As great as the experience has been (and still is), the lawyer in me just had to come out after a few days of use. What are the risks/liabilities of using a VR headset? How are these VR headset manufacturers going to be sued? I am not talking about a slip and fall on the virtual Champ Elysees. But, what are the potential health effects of using VR? The product comes with a long list of warnings both in the box and on-screen upon every startup about dizziness, nausea, not to be used by children under 13, etc. But, something tells me that will not be enough. At this time, the long-term effects of using VR are unknown and could be an issue down the road. Only time will tell.

For now, I am going to continue to enjoy the experience. As with anything in life, we assume moderation if the best course of action. How many adventures do we really need each day anyways?