Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd: Case Update

In 2010, we blogged about the then-recent decision in Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., in which a Florence County, South Carolina jury awarded $2.375 million to a young girl burned when the Nissan SUV in which she was riding wrecked; the minor’s seat happened to be situated on top of the gas tank.  Our commentary included the following analysis:

The plaintiff set forth causes of action for strict liability and breach of warranty, arguing that Nissan failed to ensure the crashworthiness of the vehicle because a small metal bracket was likely to puncture the fuel tank in the event of a side collision. The plaintiff reportedly utilized experts from Texas, Utah, California and Japan, among others, to testify to such issues as the alleged foreseeability of the bracket’s puncturing of the fuel tank. Nissan, in turn, argued that the tank rupture was due to the severe and unique circumstances of the collision, which had placed extreme, concentrated energy at the location of the bracket.

The jury apparently was able to overlook two important challenges to the plaintiff’s case: (1) the SUV had complied with all federal standards; and (2) it was the driver of the Nissan Xterra who admittedly was at fault in causing the accident. The plaintiff’s position, according to her attorney, was that if the vehicle had been built according to European standards rather than U.S. standards, whereby the bracket would have been placed no closer than 100 millimeters from the fuel tank, then the fire would not have occurred.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Nissan appealed.  Recently, the South Carolina Court of Appeals took up the case and issued this opinion affirming the jury’s award.  One of the issues on appeal included whether the circuit court erred in denying Nissan’s post-trial motion for JNOV based on the plaintiff’s failure to provide a feasible alternative design as required by Branham v. Ford Motor Company, 390 S.C. 203, 701 S.E.2d 5 (2010).  (See Abnormal Use’s coverage of that case here).

Importantly, the Court of Appeals was tasked in Courtney to determine if Branham applied retroactively, or prospectively only, since Branham came out after the jury’s award in Courtney.  The Court held that Branham did, in fact, apply retroactively, based on principles long-held in South Carolina jurisprudence:

Turning to the instant case, we recognize that in South Carolina, “[t]he general rule regarding retroactive application of judicial decisions is that decisions creating new substantive rights have prospective effect only, whereas decisions creating new remedies to vindicate existing rights are applied retrospectively.”

The Court of Appeals decided that the Courtney case fell into the latter category, since the risk-utility test had been employed in the products liability context for a long time, if not exclusively.  Thus, having decided that Branham applied in this case, the Court then took up the question whether the plaintiff’s alleged failure to provide an alternative design entitled Nissan to JNOV.  The jury determined that the plaintiff failed to prove a feasible alternative design in a post-verdict interrogatory that, according to the Court of Appeals, should never have been put before the jury in the first place, since “[o]ur supreme court has previously held that ‘[i]t is improper in a law case to submit factual issues to a jury in the form of non-binding ‘advisory interrogatories.'” (internal citations and quotations omitted).  Since the interrogatory was not dispositive of liability, it didn’t really matter what the jury found, one way or the other, in the Court’s estimation.  We see this as the Court saying, in essence, “no harm, no foul.” Finding that the jury’s answer to the interrogatory was dispositive of, well, nothing, the Court affirmed the denial of Nissan’s motion for JNOV.

Florida Court Rejects “Foreseeable Misuse” Argument In Strict Liability Case

On October 1, 2012, the Southern District of Florida issued its opinion in the case Hernandez v. Altec Environmental Products, LLC, No. 10-80532-CIV, 2012 WL 4511341 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 1, 2012).  The case involved Guadalupe Hernandez, an employee of Asplundh Tee Expert Co., who suffered a severed hand while operating a wood chipper manufactured by Altec Environmental Products, LLC (“AEP”).  Mr. Hernandez and his wife brought suit against AEP and another Altec entity, and both defendants moved for summary judgment in the case.

The wood chipper at issue in this case was a CFD 1217 model.  As designed and manufactured, the wood chipper had a guard that covered the bottom of the housing for the in-feed roller, which was referred to by the Court as the safety cover.

The safety cover was bolted to the wood chipper with eight bolts.

Here’s a picture we found of the chipper:

More pictures can be found here.

On the day of the accident, however, the safety cover was not on the wood chipper.  Why?  Because it had been removed by the Plaintiff’s employer.  Mr. Hernandez was aware of that fact.  Apparently, the safety cover was removed because the machine had a tendency to jam with debris, which needed to be constantly cleared from the in-feed rollers to keep the machine working.

Mr. Hernandez had been trained by his employer to clear debris from the machine with his hand, which could only be done with the safety cover off the machine.   Mr. Hernandez was not paying attention as he cleared debris with his hand on the day of the accident, and that’s when he got his hand severed.

At the summary judgment phase, the Plaintiffs argued the machine was defectively designed, causing it to jam repeatedly.  Plaintiffs contended that this purported defect actually encouraged operators to remove the guard and leave it off, which they argued was a foreseeable event.  This was a creative argument, but the Court wasn’t buying it:

At the hearing on the instant motion, the Court pressed Plaintiffs’ counsel to cite any cases that held a manufacturer strictly liable for failing to modify a design of a product that when used as directed was not harmful or dangerous, but when foreseeably misused or put to an unintended use, could be found to be unreasonably dangerous.

The plaintiffs cited Norton, an Eleventh Circuit case in which the key piece of evidence against the manufacturer on a design defect theory was the failure to install a dead man’s switch on a mower.  But the Court in this case quickly dismissed that argument:

There is, however, a critical factual difference between this case and Norton. In Norton, the mower was found to be defective or unreasonably dangerous as designed. In this case, it is undisputed that the wood chipper as designed was not dangerous.
The plaintiffs disagreed, and tried to argue that the wood chipper “didn’t work the way it was supposed to” and encouraged foreseeable misuse (i.e. taking the safety cover off the machine).  The Court declined to extend the doctrine of strict liability that far:
Plaintiffs have no authority for the proposition that a manufacturer may be strictly liable for a foreseeable misuse of a product or for a product that is not unreasonably dangerous as designed, but which merely functions in an allegedly unsatisfactory or inefficient manner.
When I started reading this decision, I thought it would be a run-of-the-mill products case with no potential for implications beyond its own facts.  But this is a sneaky case.  Imagine if the plaintiffs’ argument had worked.  Strict liability would have expanded significantly.  Manufacturers would be liable not only for protecting people from their own lack of common sense (i.e. placing your hands in the vicinity of moving machinery), but also when their products were modified from their original design to be more dangerous.
That is a dangerous concept indeed.

Montana Enhanced Injury Case Places Evidence of Seat Belt Usage Directly at Issue

In an enhanced or second injury case, the plaintiff claims that although the initial incident or accident caused him to suffer only minor injuries, the defective design and/or manufacture of a particular product caused him to suffer additional injuries.  The theory is that but for the negligent design or manufacture, the plaintiff would have walked away with only minor injuries.

This was the plaintiff’s theory of the underlying case at issue in Stokes v. The Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court, — P.3d —-, 2011 WL 3304510 (Mont. August 1, 2011).  A man named Peter Carter was killed after being involved in a car accident during which the vehicle he was driving rolled over.  People around him did not have a c2c cpr training in london which is why they could not help him on time. Plaintiff Stokes filed a wrongful death and survival action on behalf of Carter’s estate against the car’s manufacturer (Ford), the rental car agency that rented Carter the vehicle (Overland West, Inc.) and the driver of the other car involved in the accident (Todd Durham).   Durham admitted that he caused the initial accident.  Stokes’ theory against the other two defendants was that “the initial impact caused only minor injuries, but the seat belt in the vehicle slackened and spooled out during the rollover, allowing Carter to be partially ejected from the vehicle and causing his fatal head injury.”  The case was brought on theories of negligence and strict liability against both defendants.

The fact that the plaintiff pleaded both negligence and strict liability in the case was problematic for the trial court, which didn’t think a jury was smart enough to distinguish between the two of them.  In Montana, evidence of seat belt use (or lack thereof) is admissible in product liability claims, but not in negligence claims.  So, “The court thus informed Stokes that if he planned on using evidence of seat belt use or non-use in his strict liability claims against Ford and Overland, he would be required to drop his negligence claims against all three defendants.”

So much for alternative pleading in Montana.

Stokes then petitioned the Montana Supreme Court for supervisory control, based on the fact that, basically, he should be permitted to assert both causes of action.  First, the Court considered whether or not the case was appropriate for the exercise of supervisory control.  Deciding in the affirmative, the Court then turned to the issue of whether evidence of seat belt use was precluded in either the strict liability or product liability cause of action.

The applicable Montana statute, The Montana Seat Belt Use Act, states that evidence of compliance or non-compliance with the mandatory seat belt law is not admissible “in any civil action for personal injury or property damage resulting from the use or operation of a motor vehicle,” and failure to comply with the seat belt use law does not constitute negligence.

Ford contended that all evidence of such use or non-use should be excluded, or that at the very least, such evidence should be inadmissible in the negligence cause of action.  Stokes had a different argument, modeled on the theories underlying negligence and product liability principles.  Citing a prior case, he argued that the statute “bars proof of seat belts in a claim for negligence,” where the focus is on the parties’ conduct, but “does not apply to product liability claims,” where the focus is on the condition of the product.

An interesting argument in most cases.  In this case, however, as the Court pointed out, the seat belt was placed directly at issue by the plaintiff’s claim that the seat belt system was defective, and caused the enhanced injury of the decedent after the initial accident.

With this in mind, the Montana Supreme Court held that evidence relating to Carter’s use of a seat belt was not prohibited under either cause of action, in the context of its bearing on the condition of the seat belt restraint system.  The Court did hold, however, that a limiting instruction for the jury was appropriate “to ensure the evidence is used only for this purpose.”

Jurisdiction of Federal Court Determined by Distributor Liability Analysis

For defendants in products liability actions, the issue of distributor liability is a maddening, state-by-state patchwork of different rules and laws.  The same conduct by one distributor of a product across many states may make it liable for any injuries caused by the product in one state, yet immune from liability in another.  Not only can the role of the distributor be crucial from a liability perspective, but it often has jurisdictional implications as well.  This was the case in Martin v. Medtronic, Inc. and Saracare Corp., 5:11-CV-144/RS-CJK, 2011 WL 2473318 (N.D. Fla. June 22, 2011). The issue was the plaintiff’s motion to remand, i.e. whether the Northern District of Florida had jurisdiction to hear the case at all based on diversity of citizenship.  The plaintiff had sued Medtronic, Inc. and Saracare Corporation on products liability theories, including strict liability, after the death of her decedent allegedly caused by a defective insulin pump.

For diversity purposes, the plaintiff was considered to be a citizen of Florida; Medtronic was a citizen of Minnesota; and SaraCare a citizen of Florida.  No diversity, right?  For all of you with recent memories of law school (which are, alas, distant memories for us), you will understand that the correct answer is always, “Well, it depends!” (For all of you readers who do have recent recollections of law school, be forewarned:  This is also always the right answer in “real life” legal situations, as well). Whatever the case, the jurisdictional question hinged on whether or not SaraCare was a “sham defendant,” in which case the Court would not consider its citizenship for diversity purposes (meaning that there would be diversity after all).  And, since SaraCare was alleged to be a distributor of the insulin pump, the Court’s jurisdictional analysis focused on the potential liability of SaraCare as a distributor. As the Court summarized:

Generally, strict liability extends to those in the “distributive chain” including “retailers, wholesalers, an d distributors.” Strict liability is applicable to distributors of medical products. Strict liability, however, does not generally apply to doctors or hospitals that use a defective medical device incidental to their services.  Similarly, strict liability does not apply to pharmacists who simply dispense prescription drugs and play no role in their preparation.
In this case, SaraCare performed two functions:  first, it confirmed that the letter of necessity met the guidelines of the decedent’s insurance company for reimbursement, and second, it took the order for the pump and routed it to a Medtronic distributor.
The Court determined that SaraCare’s actions were more akin to a traditional distributor than a pharmacist and held that “because Plaintiff claims the pump malfunctioned, the traditional medical device line of strict liability cases governs.”  As such, the strict liability claims could be maintained against SaraCare, and it was determined not to be a sham defendant.  With SaraCare remaining in the case, no complete diversity existed, and the case was remanded to state court.

Marketing vs. The Market: A Debate About Bilingual Warnings

A few weeks ago, we commented upon the recent Florida case of Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., — F. Supp .2d —, No. 09-CIV-23789, 2010 WL 4814660 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 19, 2010) to start a discussion on bilingual warnings and what, if any, duty a manufacturer has to provide them. In so doing, we questioned what, if any, responsibility a manufacturer should have to provide bilingual warnings here in the United States, since the country has no official language and prides itself on its rich cultural and linguistic diversity.

Friend of the blog and John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe recently responded to our post on his own blog, and he made a number of interesting points. Just as the Farias court did, Professor Bernabe focused on the issue of marketing. The Farias court held that the heater manufacturers had no duty to provide a warning in Spanish in part because the heaters had not been marketed directly to a Spanish-speaking population, distinguishing the case factually from an earlier decision in a Florida federal court, Stanley Indus., Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., Inc., 784 F. Supp. 1570 (S.D. Fla. 1992), in which the product had been directly marketed to a Spanish-speaking population.

Professor Bernabe asked the following question in response to the Farias decision and our post:

If we are ready to say that we should recognize a duty if the product is marketed to a specific audience, is it that much of a leap to say we should recognize a duty if the product is marketed in a particular market. By this I mean, there are specific areas in this country that are known to be centers of foreign populations. And if there is a great example of this it is Miami! Let’s face it, Miami is a bilingual city. A large portion of the city is known as “Little Havana.” Everyone knows this. So is it really that burdensome to suggest that labeling should be different for that market?

His question, therefore, is whether the concept of duty in this situation should be based on marketing, or just market. As Professor Bernabe himself appears to acknowledge, this would absolutely extend the concept of duty beyond reasonable limits. Miami is the easy case – there are parts of the city in which road signs are written only in Spanish.

But what about places like New York City, where huge populations of non-English speakers are concentrated in particular areas, but also run right into each other? For years the areas of the city known as “Little Italy” and “Chinatown” have been separated by little more than about a half a city block. There is also a huge Puerto Rican population in the city, along with countless other pockets of peoples of different nationalities and language in that city.
If we were to focus on the “market” itself, rather than the “marketing,” then manufacturers that sell any product in New York City would have to hire the United Nations to translate warnings into virtually every language spoken on the earth. Any manufacturer who bought advertising time on a national basis on the networks would have similar problems.

We’re not suggesting there is an easy solution. While we think there needs to be a reasonable limit to the duty imposed on manufacturers, it would also be unreasonable for us to say that manufacturers should be able to stick their collective heads in the sand and ignore the fact that there are people in this country who can’t read or understand English. For now, the marketing issue seems to be the best we have.

(Back in November, we interviewed Professor Bernabe as a part of our Abnormal Interviews series. You can read that interview here.).

Florida Federal Court Rules Manufacturers Have No Duty to Provide Bilingual Warnings

The United States has always been known as a “melting pot,” a place where people from all over the world come and settle and bring their food, culture, and language with them. What does this “melting pot” designation, however, mean for manufacturers, especially in a country where there is no official language? What duties do they have to people who do not speak or read English.

This was precisely the issue before the Southern District of Florida in the case of Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al., No. 09-CIV-23789, 2010 WL 4814660 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 19, 2010). On February 5, 2009, Plaintiff Lilybet Farias (“Plaintiff”), a naturalized American citizen who was Cuban-born, purchased two heaters from a Home Depot in Miami, Florida to heat her home during a cold snap. One heater was manufactured by Defendant Mr. Heater, Inc., and the other by Defendant Enerco Group, Inc. Plaintiff spoke little English and could read almost no English. Other than understanding the word “caution,” which was printed throughout the user’s manual, she could not understand any of the words on the heater’s packaging or read the users’ manuals.

Plaintiff took the two heaters home and hooked them up to propane tanks. She put one in her living room, two or three feet away from her sofa, and one in her bedroom. After watching television in her living room, she turned that heater off, turned on the heater in her bedroom and went to sleep. Later, she woke up when smoke from a fire in her living room woke her up. Her home suffered significant fire and smoke damage as a result.

Plaintiff filed suit against the two manufacturers of the heaters, as well as Home Depot. She sued the defendants on theories of negligent failure to warn and strict liability. The defendants filed for summary judgment. As the Southern District of Florida outlined:

A manufacturer must take reasonable precautions to avoid reasonably foreseeable injuries to the users of its products and thereby assumes a duty to convey to the users of that product a fair and adequate warning of the dangerous potentialities of the products so that the user, by the exercise of reasonable care, will have a fair and adequate notice of the possible consequences of the product’s use or misuse.

Nevertheless, Florida cases make clear that a manufacturer will not be held liable for damages in products liability cases, even if its warning is inaccurate, if the person did not read the warning or label, since in that case proximate cause cannot be established. As a result, the Court framed two issues before it: First, whether a manufacturer has a duty to provide warnings in Spanish, and second, whether a Spanish-speaking plaintiff can establish proximate cause when she cannot read English warnings provided by a manufacturer.

The Court held that, as a matter of law, the manufacturers of the heaters had no duty to provide bilingual warnings in this case. The Court distinguished the facts of Farias from a previous case, Stanley Industries, Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., Inc., 784 F. Supp. 1570 (S.D. Fla. 1992) in which the court imposed such a duty, because in Farias, the heaters at issue in the case were not marketed specifically to a Spanish-speaking population. The Court also noted that there was no statute imposing such a duty on manufacturers.

The Court also held that “any purchaser of the Heaters manufactured by Mr. Heater and Enerco who read the instructions would have understood the clear an unambiguous warnings not to sue the Heaters indoors in an enclosed space.” Relevant to the Court’s decision was the fact that Plaintiff had failed to further investigate the proper use of the heaters, despite her understanding of the word “caution.” She also understood the words “danger,” “warning,” and “stop.” In the words of the Court, “it would be improper to find such clear warnings inadequate because Plaintiff here was not well-versed in English and did not investigate the danger to which she had been alerted in the use of the Heaters.” In fact, the Court found that Plaintiff’s failure to seek out additional explanation was “willful ignorance . . . certainly akin — if not precisely the same — as refusing to read the warnings at all.” The Court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the cause of action for failure to warn.

Finally, the Court also held that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the strict liability cause of action because Plaintiff could not establish that either heater had been defectively designed.

The issue of bilingual warnings on consumer products will be an issue to watch in the future. This decision is an important one, because if manufacturers are required in the future to provide bilingual instructions and warnings, what languages are included? Spanish might be the obvious first step, but where would the line be drawn? If warnings are posted in Spanish and French, for instance, but the injured party is Korean, will the manufacturer be found negligent in a failure to warn case? Courts and legislatures need to be wary of imposing overly burdensome requirements on manufacturers in this area.

The Case of the Reconditioned Lawnmower and Implications on Strict Liability

As we all know, a finding by a jury that a product is unreasonably dangerous will cause the manufacturer to be held strictly liable for any injuries the product causes. But what happens when the product itself has been used, “reconditioned,” and sold to someone else?
This was the question considered by the Seventh Circuit in Malen v. MTD Products, et al., No. 08-3855, 2010 WL 4670176 (7th Cir. 2010). Malen bought a Yard-Man riding lawnmower from Home Depot which was manufactured by MTD Products. The lawnmower was marketed by Home Depot as having been “reconditioned,” and the product came with a warranty. Malen took the lawnmower home and used it between 30 and 50 times without incident. One day, while mulching leaves, the lawnmower became wedged up against a curb and Malen couldn’t dislodge it. So, he stood up and tried to get off the lawnmower. There was conflicting information about the exact sequence of events, but it is undisputed that the blade of the lawnmower cut Malen’s foot, and he suffered permanent injuries.
According to industry standards, the lawnmower should have been equipped with two separate safety features–one that stopped the lawnmower blade if the operator stood up from the seat, and another that stopped the blade if the lawnmower was put into reverse. It was undisputed that at the time Malen test drove the lawnmower at Home Depot, the reverse safety function was not operational. Furthermore, it was uncontested that the blade did not stop when Malen stood up from the seat on the day of the accident.
As the Seventh Circuit pointed out, “Manufacturers and sellers are strictly liable for injuries caused by unreasonably dangerous products unless an unforeseen alteration by a third party introduced the unsafe condition.” Second, the court acknowledged that when products are used and sold “as is,” any unforeseen defects introduced by prior owners cannot be attributed to manufacturers and sellers. Both Home Depot and MTD attempted to show that the product had been altered by the first owner of the mower, by Malen, or by some other “nefarious person.” The court was not convinced.
It was, however, a case of first impression as to how Illinois courts would treat products that had been “reconditioned.” By reconditioning a product, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, is different than simply repairing a product, and in its opinion “extends the useful life beyond what was contemplated at the point of manufacture and effectively creates a new product.” The Seventh Circuit surmised that, as they have before, Illinois courts would follow the Restatement (Third) of Torts and apply strict liability in the case of re-manufactured products. On this basis, the Seventh Circuit found that the lawnmower, by failing to have the requisite safety measures in place, could be found unreasonably dangerous.
The court also concluded that a jury could find that the lawnmower was defectively designed, and the proximate cause of Malen’s injury on negligence theories. It reversed the grant of summary judgment for MTD and Home Depot, and remanded the whole case.
In this case, there was evidence that the safety measures were not properly connected or installed before the lawnmower was sold to its first owner. However, the decision has serious implications for manufacturers of products which are then “reconditioned” by someone else, and perhaps warranted by the retailer. If the reconditioned product later causes injury, the manufacturer may eventually be released from liability, but it obviously won’t prevent the manufacturer from being sued and forced to engage in expensive discovery as to the original condition and/or design of the product, and as to what modifications and/or repairs were performed on the product prior to resale, without the manufacturer’s knowledge and without compliance to the specifications of the manufacturer. All for the re-sale of a product for which the manufacturer saw no profits.

Recent Florida Decision Related to Chinese Drywall Liability — Will it lead the way in other litigation?

On November 5, 2010, Judge Glenn Kelley of the 15th Judicial Circuit for Palm Beach County, Florida ruled in favor of defendant homebuilders on homeowners’ claims that Chinese drywall installed in their houses was defective resulting in economic loss and personal injuries. Bennett v. Centerline Homes Inc., No. 50 2009 CA 014458 (15th Jud. Circuit Fla.) [PDF].

The Wall Street Journal here provides a history of the issues that have resulted from the installation of Chinese-drywall in American homes and the resulting litigation associated with those problems. This article also provides a brief summary of the Bennett decision and poses the question whether it “could set a template for other judges to use to adjudicate drywall cases across the country.” Homebuilders hope so.

This court made several determinations that will be helpful to homebuilders in lawsuits around the country — that is if other courts will follow the principles applied by Judge Kelley. First, Judge Kelley provides that there are two applications of the economic loss rule in Florida — contractual privity economic loss rule and products liability economic loss rule. The Court found that the second, products liability economic loss rule, did not apply to the tort claims asserted by plaintiffs because it only applies where the defect in the product causes damage to the product but does not cause personal injury or damage to other property. Plaintiffs here assert the opposite — no damage to the drywall but personal injury and damage to other property. Despite this ruling, the Court did find that the first application of the economic loss rule — contractual privity economic loss rule — applied here. The Court found that since the damages sought by the homeowners arose out of the contract they entered with homebuilders, traditional contract damages must be applied to the economic losses suffered by the plaintiffs.

Second, Judge Kelley dismissed plaintiffs’ claims for private nuisance because there is no case law relied on by plaintiffs that “support the contention that a nuisance may exist absent a defendant’s exercise of its property rights.” Third, Judge Kelley ruled that strict liability does not apply to improvements to real property as improvements to real property are not considered products and that homebuilders are not in the distributive chain of a product, thus cannot be held strictly liable. This last ruling may be the most significant and, if adopted by other courts in Chinese drywall cases, will work to the advantage of homebuilder defendants in these cases.

Toasted Skin Syndrome: The Unreasonably Dangerous Laptop

The Associated Press recently reported that if you use your laptop for too long while it sits on your lap, you could develop “toasted skin syndrome,” also known as erythema ab igne. This is a gross-sounding skin condition characterized by darkening or discoloration caused by long term exposure to relatively moderate heat levels – say from a heating pad, or a hot water bottle.

If true, this has the potential for unpleasantness.

According to the AP, there have been a handful of laptop related cases of this condition since 2007, including one law student whose laptop registered a balmy 125 degrees when tested. The story reported that the law student sat her laptop on her legs around six hours a day. Ouch. As if we needed another way for law school to be an uncomfortable experience.

But let’s think about this analytically. The problem is easily avoided by putting the computer on a desk, or by putting something between it and your legs. From a legal standpoint, though, Dell, Apple, and other manufacturers may have some challenges – some semantic in nature – in the defense of these claims. First, computers – no matter the kind – get hot. They don’t get as hot as they in long ago days, but 125 degrees is significant heat. Second, it’s called a “laptop.” They may have a hard time arguing that these people aren’t using the computers as they were intended when the user, in fact, places the computer on his or her lap. Sorry, but it’s true.
Still, like cases involving hot coffee or flying Wii controllers, we’re having a hard time getting past common sense when we think about potential lawsuits–if the laptop is sitting on your lap for six hours a day and it’s getting hot, you might want to think about moving it. It is an electronic device that generates heat, after all. In any event, we’ll keep watching this issue and post about any reported decisions.

Judge-Made Law: Florida’s "Dangerous Instrumentality" Doctrine

The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is nothing new in products law. What is different about Florida’s doctrine, however, is that “it is the only state to have adopted this rule by judicial decree,” as noted by the recent case Salsbury v. Kapka, 41 So. 3d 1103 (Fla. Ct. App. 2010). Other states have held that the issue is one for the jury to decide.

In Salsbury, the Court considered whether an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, is a “dangerous instrumentality” under Florida’s tort law, a designation that would impose strict liability upon the owner of the ATV who entrusts it to a second person who in turn negligently operates it and causes injury to a third party.
Cars, as the decision pointed out, are the gold standard for dangerous instrumentality, because they are dangerous to others when used for their “designated purpose.” In a prior decision, Meister v. Fisher, 462 So. 2d 1071 (Fla. 1984), the Florida Supreme Court designated golf carts as dangerous instrumentalities based on three factors that liken them to cars: (1) they fit the statutory definition of “motor vehicle,” (2) they are heavily regulated by statute, and (3) there is extensive evidence as to the causes and consequences of golf cart accidents.
But what of ATVs? The Court of Appeals remanded the case, because there was not enough expert testimony or evidence in the record about the nature and extent of ATV injuries. The Court pointed out the peculiar nature of Florida’s judge-made law: that to decide an issue of law, the court actually needed factual testimony:

As such, the trial court should, in theory, have been able to resolve Kapka’s motion without any specific proffer of evidence. Nevertheles, we believe Meister compels a contrary result. Evidence of a vehicle’s danger in its normal operation is essential before a court may extend the dangerous instrumentality doctrine, and the trial court’s failure to produce an evidentiary record was error.

There is a key difference between cars, and “vehicles” like ATVs and golf carts: who drives them. Laws about whether or not a driver’s license is required to operate a golf cart or an ATV vary widely (or sometimes go unenforced, in my experience), which means that minors and others who probably shouldn’t be driving a grocery cart can use them with impunity.
If Child is driving, it is likely that Parent is the owner, opening Parent up to strict liability if and when Child hurts Third Party. This is the danger from a legal standpoint, of course. And under the three-part test outlined by Florida courts, the list of “dangerous instrumentalities” has the potential to grow exponentially. It’s a good thing that it rarely snows in the Sunshine State.