Subject: Design Defect Standards

Expert’s Failure to Identify Product Defect in Pressure Cooker or Inadequacy in Warnings Leads to Summary Judgment

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It is axiomatic that a plaintiff must offer evidentiary support for each element of her claim in order to survive summary judgment. And a ubiquitous feature of product liability actions is the use of expert witnesses by both sides. These principles are, of course, related – the plaintiff usually must offer expert testimony in order to make a prima facie case, and the defense then attacks that prima facie case through expert testimony. But sometimes a plaintiff loses sight of the connection and, despite retaining an expert, fails to elicit the opinions she needs to make her case. As a recent decision from the Western District of Wisconsin illustrates, it pays for a defendant to carefully evaluate whether a plaintiff has checked all of the necessary boxes.

In Moore v. National Presto Industries, Inc., 2022 WL 1555875 (W.D. Wis. May 17, 2022), Plaintiff alleged that she was injured when she opened her pressure cooker while it was still pressurized, ejecting its contents onto her arm, causing burns. Plaintiff sued the cooker’s manufacturer, asserting strict liability claims for design defect and failure to warn as well as a claim for negligence. Defendant moved for summary judgment on each of these claims.

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Third Circuit Confirms That Alleged Defect in “Simple” Component of More Complex System Must Be Proven by Expert Testimony When Facts Surrounding Defect Claim Are Beyond Common Knowledge

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A plaintiff who alleges that a product is defective usually has to offer expert testimony in support of that allegation.  This should come as no surprise for complex products – if it took a team of scientists and engineers to bring the product to market, then a lay jury should not be asked to evaluate an alleged defect in that product without the aid of expert testimony.  But what if a plaintiff alleges a defect in the design of a relatively simple, more familiar component of a complex product?  The Third Circuit recently addressed that question in an opinion that, although nonprecedential and in some respects peculiar to New Jersey law, illustrates how a court should approach the issue.

In Kuhar v. Petzl Co., 2022 WL 1101580 (3d Cir. Apr. 13, 2022), Plaintiff fell and injured himself while using a safety harness that he had purchased as part of a kit seven years earlier.  He alleged that the fall occurred because a bolt attached to the carabiner of the safety harness had snapped due to a design and/or “indeterminate” or manufacturing defect.  In support of his claims, Plaintiff proffered a metallurgical and materials sciences expert who identified two alleged design defects – a “sharp profile change” and “sharp threads on the bolt” – and machining grooves that the expert deemed a manufacturing defect, some combination of which he claimed had caused the accident.  But some of the expert’s defect and causation opinions were “net opinions” – New Jersey parlance for “ipse dixit” opinions – and were excluded for lack of supporting data.  Other opinions were excluded because the expert failed to define his terms or explain his reasoning.  The Third Circuit agreed with the district court that the expert’s opinions lacked both reliability and fit, and affirmed its exclusion of all of the expert’s opinions.

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Snapchat’s ‘Speed Filter’: Georgia Supreme Court Revives Negligent Design Claim

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On March 15, 2022, the Georgia Supreme Court revived a negligent design claim that had been brought against Snapchat, Inc. (n/k/a Snap, Inc.) involving Snap’s “Speed Filter.”  As one of the few decisions across the country addressing products liability law in the context of platform “products” (more accurately categorized as services) such as Snapchat, the opinion provides a glimpse of the sort of issues that other courts may soon be required to address.

The Factual & Procedural Background:

Plaintiffs Wentworth and Karen Maynard alleged that Defendant Christal McGee was using Snapchat’s “Speed Filter” and driving over 100 miles per hour when she rear-ended them, causing severe injuries.  The “Speed Filter” is a feature that allows the user to record their real-life speed on a photo or video and share it with other users.  Plaintiffs sued Snap as well, alleging that Snap had negligently designed the “Speed Filter” because the filter promoted unsafe driving and encouraged dangerous behavior.

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Software Liability: Why a Michigan Federal Court Decision is Relevant to Product Manufacturers Nationwide

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Numerous products in our day-to-day lives incorporate or consist of software. The legal system, however, has been hesitant (at best) to bring software within traditional product liability regimes. Courts have grappled with whether to consider software a product and have largely found that it is not. However, a recent decision in the Western District of Michigan holds that software is a product—Holbrook v. Prodomax Automation Ltd., No. 1:17-cv-219, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 178325 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 20, 2021). While Holbrook may be an outlier, it is significant. It bucks the trend, and potential defendants should be aware of it.

Background: Holbrook involved a wrongful death suit arising out of an accident on a robotic assembly line. The decedent’s estate (Plaintiff) brought a common-law negligence claim against multiple defendants, including the manufacturer who designed, built, and installed the assembly line. Plaintiff’s claim was based, among other things, on the software controlling the robots.

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Treating Physician’s Informed Consent Process and Decision-Making in Device Selection Lead to Partial Summary Judgment for Device Manufacturer

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A series of recent rulings out of the Southern District of Texas in an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter case reflect how well-planned discovery can lead to a successful multipronged summary judgment motion and can effectively prune a plaintiff’s ambitious product defect claims. Conn v. C.R. Bard, Inc., No. 4:14-CV-298.

In 2006, plaintiff’s physicians discovered a blood clot in his inferior vena cava. An IVC filter was inserted to prevent the blood clot from causing potentially fatal further injury. Because of plaintiff’s young age, the physician chose a removable filter. Plaintiff reported abdominal pain just four days after the IVC filter was placed. The blood clot was found to have moved and extended through and above the recently placed filter, and the physicians initiated anticoagulant therapy.

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Pennsylvania Medical Device Strict Liability Claims: Relentless Repetition, Clamoring for Review

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A Pennsylvania federal court has again asked that the state’s Supreme Court clarify whether, and to what extent, medical device manufacturers are immune from strict liability claims by virtue of the “unavoidably unsafe products” exemption recognized in Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 402A cmt. k (“Comment k”)—only this time with a direct certification.

On Thursday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals certified that question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, along with a question about which negligent design defect theory—or theories—a Pennsylvania plaintiff may assert against a medical device manufacturer.  Pet. for Certification of Questions of State Law, ECF No. 50, Ebert v. C.R. Bard, Inc., et al., No. 20-2139 (3d Cir. June 24, 2021) (“Ebert Pet.”).   Last spring, Judge Pappert of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed Ms. Ebert’s strict liability claim, finding her IVC filter “an ‘unavoidably unsafe product’” under Hahn v. Richter, 673 A.3d 888 (Pa. 1996), and she appealed that order granting summary judgment to the Third Circuit.

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