Product Liability -- 2017

Ford Motor Co. v. Trejo   (Nevada Supreme Court)

Reasonable alternative design test for liability involving complex products

The NAM filed an amicus brief in the Nevada Supreme Court urging the court to adopt an important legal test in complex product design liability litigation involving a rollover accident. The NAM’s brief opposed using a “consumer expectations” test, which is more appropriate to address manufacturing flaws, and urged the court to instead support a “reasonable alternative design” test with a risk-utility component. When designing complex products like cars, manufacturers must take into account safety considerations for many different situations and customers, and must consider available technology as well as the usefulness, desirability and affordability of the product to consumers. This holistic approach allows companies to design optimally safer products.

In complex product design liability cases, it is essential to have a showing (1) that a product could have been designed to avoid or reduce the plaintiff’s injury; (2) that the modification would not have increased the risk of harm to others; and (3) that the product, as modified, would not have made it undesirable or unaffordable to consumers. The alternative is to impose liability on a manufacturer that did all it could to create a safe product. This would reduce incentives to design safe products, needlessly raise prices, and result in a lack of consumer choice.

It is also sound public policy for courts to require a showing of a reasonable alternative design in claims alleging that a complex product is defective. This risk-utility test for evaluating whether a product is defective in design provides an objective standard; one that ensures consumers are able to purchase the types of products that they desire. It encourages manufacturers to design products in a manner that optimizes safety based on available technology without compromising the utility of the product or rendering it unaffordable for consumers.

Unfortunately, the court upheld the lower court's ruling and allowed the consumer expectation test to stand. It felt that the risk utility analysis was a substantial departure from the state's existing law, and that a plaintiff should not have to show that the defendant could have used an alternative design. It found that a negligence standard should not be used when considering strict products liability claims. This outcome makes it easier for consumers to sue manufacturers, particularly those who make complex products with many safety factors to consider when making design and manufacturing decisions.

Related Documents:
NAM brief  (November 19, 2015)


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