Manufacturer of Text Message System in Truck Has No Duty to Third Party

While litigation drives change and can be an important medium of social commentary, many times it is no more than a less than well thought out attempt to get at a deep pocket. In Durkee v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., No. 1:09cv449, 2011 WL 309693 (W.D.N.C. Jan. 28, 2011), there is such an attempt. While the facts are unfortunate, the limits of liability are not. A car with four passengers is struck by a tractor trailer, and the passengers are seriously injured. In the tractor trailer is a text message system that allows a driver to send and receive text messages while the vehicle is in operation. The passengers brought a products liability action against the manufacturer of the text messaging system, alleging that the design and manufacture was defective because an incoming text message could distract a driver.

The manufacturer won on a no duty argument. Note that there was no factual allegation that the driver received a text before the accident, or was in any other way distracted by that system, just that it’s possible that a driver might possibly be distracted. The court correctly found that the plaintiffs were not users of the product, and the magistrate judge noted that if anticipating misuse that could cause foreseeable harm to others was the test, then “no vehicle would be capable of traveling above the speed limit, car ignitions would be equipped with ignition interlock devices, and guns would not be sold to persons with poor judgment.”

Not only that, but anything that could distract, including cell phones, would be subject to a products liability claim. The focus is not on the dangerousness of the product, or the conduct of a distributor, but on the carelessness of the user, and there is already a tort for that. To the extent that this lawsuit is a cry to ban texting while driving or to further restrict drivers, then that’s fine. But the law can’t support finding liability against manufacturers from third parties injured by a user’s careless use of a product. If a brick mason carelessly tosses a brick that strikes a passerby, I don’t think anyone could argue that a viable products action lies with the injured party against the brick manufacturer. Would anyone want a brick that would disintegrate harmlessly if tossed through the air? You can think of endless examples. (Why would anyone design a truck that could jackknife?)

Serious injuries are serious. Injuries are unfortunate, and money is the best substitute that we have come up with for compensating injury. But that money can’t come from anyone, and manufacturers can’t be held responsible by third parties for the carelessness of users, when the product is being used as it should be used.

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