Resolving a split among the intermediate appellate courts, the California Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that dramatically extends the period to file suit for birth defects in toxic tort cases. In Lopez v. Sony Electronics, Inc., No. S235357 (Cal. 7/5/18), the court held that these cases, already subject to tolling under the delayed discovery rule, are also tolled during the period of the plaintiff’s minority. The limitations clock does not even start to tick until at least the plaintiff’s eighteenth birthday.
Recap: The background and prior post for this multi-part series can be found here.
In 1994, the California Supreme Court took up Soule v. General Motors Corp., 8 Cal.4th 548 (1994), to provide much-needed guidance as to when it is and is not appropriate to allow a jury to decide the design defect issue based on the consumer expectations test (CET). “Much-needed” may be an understatement – trial courts routinely allowed plaintiffs freely to elect what design defect standard the jury would consider, often both CET and the risk-benefit test (RBT), gaining the proverbial two bites at the apple, and the courts of appeal had not prescribed any meaningful limiting theory or principle.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently held a public hearing to discuss its potential role in overseeing the safety of smart devices collectively referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). As Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled devices ranging from coffeemakers to thermostats to medical devices flood the marketplace, regulators and consumer safety advocates alike have raised concerns about whether the current framework of government regulations adequately protects consumers. While the hearing was only one step towards increased regulation, it did highlight possible steps the CPSC may take, as well as possible pitfalls raised by industry members and the legal community.
In the 50-plus years since the inception of the doctrine of strict products liability in tort, a vexing issue for product manufacturers has been how to evaluate and defend against accusations of design defect. Manufacturing defects are relatively easy to evaluate – something either did or did not go wrong on the assembly line, the product either did or did not conform to specifications. But except for the rare and extreme cases where, in hindsight, the design is so clearly misguided that no reasonable engineer would consider it safe, courts, commentators and lawyers have hotly debated the proper benchmark to judge the alleged defectiveness of an entire product line.
Manufacturers like to know what to expect. Without a concrete liability standard, they cannot confidently design their products to satisfy it, and they cannot rationally evaluate their liability exposure when they get sued. Even better for manufacturers would be a standard that actually makes sense, and is reasonably attainable.