Although we expect all products to function as anticipated, that is especially true for those products on which we rely to provide safety during dangerous situations. Indeed, when the risk of harm is high, an equipment failure can lead to truly tragic results. This type of product failure was at the heart of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Key Safety Sys., Inc. v. Bruner, which involved a product defect in the seatbelt restraint system of a Jeep Wrangler.
This suit centers around a rollover accident that occurred in September 2007. The suit was brought by the husband of the passenger of the jeep, acting as the personal representative of the estate of his wife, who died as a result of the accident. The decedent’s husband owned the vehicle, but it was being driven by his daughter at the time of the turnover. The reasons for the turnover remained unknown. Both the driver and the decedent were apparently wearing their seatbelts, but during the course of the accident the decedent was ejected from the vehicle and sustained various severe injuries, including a loss of body tissue around her upper legs and abdomen. The decedent eventually succumbed to her injuries. The vehicle seatbelt restraint system was designed, constructed, and integrated by Key Safety Systems, Inc. The husband brought suit against Key and various governmental entities, alleging failure to warn, strict product liability, negligence, and failure to recall and/or retrofit. The case proceeded to a trial, after which the jury returned a verdict awarding the plaintiff $4,600,000. The jury apportioned 20 percent of the fault to the decedent’s daughter and 80 percent of the fault to Key. In light of this unfavorable verdict, Key brought an appeal, arguing that the trial court erred by denying its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict with respect to the failure to warn claim, and by admitting expert testimony regarding certain seatbelt retractor mechanism testing performed by the expert witness and a video of such testing.
Appeals courts are often reluctant to disturb jury verdicts, and this case proved to be no exception. The Court of Appeals first addressed the trial court’s denial of Key’s motions for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the failure to warn claim. First, Key contended that the plaintiff had not provided sufficient evidence that a different vehicle would have been purchased had they been warned of the risk of equipment failure. The court found this argument unavailing, since the plaintiff testified that he would have opted for a different vehicle had he known the risk, and there were a multitude of vehicle options from which he could choose at the time of purchase. In addition, the Court of Appeals referenced the testimony of a witness at the scene, who stated that the decedent was incredulous about having been ejected, considering she had been wearing her seatbelt. Second, Key argued that a warning in the owner manual provided a sufficient warning. However, the Court of Appeal noted that this theory was not presented at trial, and, even if it were, it was one regarding sufficiency that the jury would have been entitled to decide against.
Next, the Court of Appeals addressed the trial court’s decision to allow expert witness testimony and the video of the seatbelt retractor testing. Key argued that the evidence was prejudicial because the testing did not sufficiently recreate the circumstances of the accident and, as a result, misled the jury regarding the events actually at issue. However, the Court of Appeals noted that the testimony and video had probative value because they sought to provide a representation of the scientific theories on which the expert’s theory of the equipment failure was based. In addition, the Court of Appeals further found that the jury had been given a sufficient explanation and warning about the differences between the testing and the accident at issue during the trial. Accordingly, the prejudice was sufficiently abated and did not overcome the probative value of the evidence. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling and jury verdict.
Despite our best efforts, we cannot always avoid the perils that life presents, and there are some injuries that are truly unavoidable. Nevertheless, when we do take reasonable precautions, and the instruments on which we rely fail, the manufacturers of those products may be indeed be liable for the faults of the equipment. Product liability litigation can be an onerous undertaking, given the complexities of discovery and the necessity of expert testimony in many circumstances. Accordingly, those who have been injured as a result of a possible product defect should consider finding capable legal counsel before taking action. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have resources to help guide those with a possible complex claim and are ready to provide you with the benefits of their knowledge. If you believe you have a possible claim and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation.