Question 4: Corporations

Question

Manufacturer designed and manufactured a "Cold Drink Blender," which it sold through retail stores throughout the country. The Cold Drink Blender consists of three components: a base that houses the motor, a glass container for liquids with mixing blades inside on the bottom, and a removable cover for the container to prevent liquids from overflowing during mixing. A manufacturer's brochure that came with the Cold Drink Blender states that it is "perfect for making all of your favorite cold drinks, like mixed fruit drinks and milk shakes, and it even crushes ice to make frozen drinks like daiquiris and piña coladas," and cautioned, "Do not fill beyond 2 inches of the top".

Retailer sold one of the Cold Drink Blenders to Consumer. One day, Consumer was following a recipe for vegetable soup that called for thickening the soup by liquefying the vegetables. After deciding to use her Cold Drink Blender for this purpose, Consumer filled the glass container to the top with hot soup, placed it on the base, put the cover on top, and turned the blender on the highest speed. The high speed rotation of the mixing blades forced the contents to the top of the container, pushed off the cover, and splashed hot soup all over Consumer, who was severely burned by the hot soup.

Consumer filed a lawsuit against Manufacturer and Retailer, pleading claims for strict products liability and negligence. In her complaint, Consumer stated that the Cold Drink Blender was not equipped with a cover that locked onto the top of the container in such a way as to prevent it from coming off during operation and that the failure to equip the blender with this safety feature was a cause of her injuries.

Manufacturer moved to dismiss the complaint against it on the following grounds:

  1. Consumer's injury was caused by her own misuse of the Cold Drink Blender which, as implied by its name, was intended for mixing only cold substances.
  2. Consumer's injury was caused by her own lack of care, as she overfilled the Cold Drink Blender and operated it at high speed.
  3. The design of the Cold Drink Blender was not defective since It complied with design standards set forth in federal regulations promulgated by the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission, which do not require any locking mechanism.
  4. Retailer moved to dismiss the complaint against it on the following ground:
  5. Retailer played no part in the manufacture of the Cold Drink Blender and therefore should not be held responsible for a defect in its design.
  6. How should the court rule on each ground of both motions to dismiss? Discuss.

Answer

A court will grant a motion to dismiss where the facts, even if taken as true, do not satisfy the requirements for a prima facie case. Each cause of action is considered separately below.

A. Manufacturer's Motion to Dismiss the Negligence Action:

A person injured by a defective product may seek recovery based on negligence if the elements of duty of care, breach of that duty, causation and damages are satisfied.

A manufacturer has a duty to exercise reasonable care in placing safe items into the hands of foreseeable plaintiffs, which includes consumers and users of its products. Here, Manufacturer produced the Cold Drink Blender, Consumer purchased the blender for her personal use, and Consumer was injured while using the blender. Thus, because Consumer was a user of the Cold Drink Blender she is a foreseeable plaintiff and Manufacturer owes her the duty to act with reasonable care.

In a negligence action involving a product, breach of the duty of care may be found where: 1) there is a manufacturing defect; 2) there is a design defect; or 3) the manufacturer failed to provide adequate warnings regarding the product. Generally, while a failure to comply with a Federal safety standard is conclusive proof of a design defect, compliance with Federal safety standards merely provides evidence the product is not defective. Here, Manufacturer's Cold Drink Blender met the Federal safety standards, which did not require a locking mechanism. Thus, in order for Consumer to prevail there must be specific evidence of Manufacturer's negligence.

A manufacturing defect exists where an item fails to perform as would be expected by the ordinary user or where there is a flaw in the production of the item. Here, the facts indicate the blender functioned mechanically as intended. There are no facts indicating negligence in the manufacturing process. Thus, there was no breach of the duty of due care under the manufacturing defect theory.

A design defect exists where a product could have been made safer, under then existing technology, without significant increase in the cost of manufacturing the product or serious reduction in the utility of the product. Here, the facts suggest the blender would have been safer to operate if there had been a lid lock. Consumer would need to proffer specific expert testimony that a locking lid would have prevented the type of injury suffered by Consumer. It appears a lid lock would have been easy to incorporate into the design of the blender and would not have reduced the utility of the product for its intended purpose. However, Consumer would have to demonstrate this design change would not significantly increased the cost of producing the blender. Thus, based on these facts, it is likely Consumer can prove Manufacturer breached its duty of care under the design defect theory.

The breach of the duty of care may be found where the product, its packaging or advertising do not provide adequate warnings to the user of the risks involved in using the product. Here the facts indicate the Cold Drink Blender contained a single warning that two inches of space should be left at the top of the blender. The facts do not indicate that there were any warnings regarding the use of the blender for solids other than ice, hot liquids or about using the blender on high speed. Manufacturer will argue that its warning regarding overfilling the blender was adequate to put consumer on notice regarding the risk of improper use. Manufacturer will note if a user heeded the warning to allow adequate space in the blender, the contents of the blender could safely expand regardless of the temperature of the contents or the speed used. Thus, it does not appear that Manufacturer will be liable under this theory.

To prove causation in a product liability action based in negligence, the plaintiff must establish the manufacturer's negligence was the cause of injury. Here it is not clear that Manufacturer's negligence in omitting a lid lock was the cause of Consumer's injuries. Rather, Consumer's use of the Cold Drink Blender for hot items, using the blender for solid items other than ice, or Consumer's mere overfilling of the blender could be found to have caused the lid to fly off the blender, which led to her injuries. Thus, it is unlikely that Manufacturer's negligence can be established as the cause of Consumer's injuries.

In order for a plaintiff to recover for negligence using a design defect theory, the plaintiff must have suffered injury to her person or property. Mere economic losses are insufficient. Here, Consumer suffered serious burns to her body because of the lid flying off during the blending of hot liquids. These injuries are sufficient to satisfy the element of damages.

B. Manufacturer's Defenses to the Negligence Action:

Misuse
Where a plaintiff uses a product in an unintended manner, the manufacturer may avoid liability. Here manufacturer will assert that Consumer's overfilling the blender with hot liquids and then attempting to mix the liquids at high speed were misuses of the product. In support of its position, Manufacturer will point out the name of the product was "Cold Beverage Blender" which indicated it was intended for limited use. It will also note the materials provided with the blender did not indicate that it could be used to puree vegetables or with hot liquids. Moreover, Manufacturer will note the blender's brochure clearly indicated the blender should not be overfilled. Consumer will note the cautionary statement contained in the brochure was insufficient to serve as a warning because it was not labeled as a warning and was contained only in the product brochure.

Under the foreseeable misuse doctrine, a manufacturer cannot avoid liability if the plaintiff's use of the product was reasonably foreseeable. Manufacturer will claim that the name of the blender indicated its proper use. However, absent specific warnings to alert the user that hot items should not be placed in the blender, the possibility the blender would be used to prepare a wide range of foods would be foreseeable. Thus, Manufacturer will not be able to rely on this defense.

Assumption of the Risk
A plaintiff may be deemed to have assumed the risk of her actions where she knowingly and voluntarily acted. Here manufacturer will argue that Consumer knowingly used the product in a manner contrary to the way it was manufactured and marketed. Additional facts will be needed to determine the viability of this defense.

Contributory/Comparative Negligence
In certain jurisdictions, under contributory negligence, a plaintiff will be barred from recovery where her negligence contributed to her injury. Under the pure comparative negligence approach, a plaintiff's recovery will be reduced in proportion to her negligence. In most jurisdictions, where the plaintiff's contributory negligence is equal to or greater than the defendant's negligence, recovery will be barred. Here, Manufacturer will argue that Consumer was negligent in her use of the blender. Consumer overfilled the blender contrary to the plain warning provided by Manufacturer. Moreover, Consumer used the product to mix hot liquids despite the name of the product. Thus, manufacturer will likely be able to reduce its liability based on Consumer's actions.

C. Retailer's Motion to Dismiss the Negligence Action:

As stated above, the elements of duty, breach, causation and damages must be met in order for plaintiff to withstand a motion to dismiss. Retailer owed a duty of due care to foreseeable plaintiffs. Here, Consumer, as the end user of the product, was a foreseeable plaintiff. The standard of care applicable to these facts is that of a reasonable retail distributor. There are no facts indicating Retailer acted negligently. Although the product was designated as a cold drink blender, there is nothing suggesting this designation of use was anything more than a marketing angle used to differentiate the product from other blenders. Based on the facts provided there was nothing that should have alerted Retailer to the potential design defect with the product. The blender contained the standard parts found in a blender and did not contain a warning to alert the Retailer of any risks unique to this product. Thus, it is unlikely that Retailer would have been found to have breached its duty of due care.

Even if Consumer were able to establish a breach of duty on the part of Retailer, the facts do not indicate that Retailer's negligence was the cause of Consumer's injuries.

The element of damages is satisfied for the reasons stated above.

Thus, Retailer will likely be successful in moving to dismiss Consumer's negligence action.

D. Retailer's Defenses to the Negligence Action:

Retailer will assert the defenses of misuse, assumption of the risk and comparative/contributory negligence as discussed above.

E. Manufacturer's Motion to Dismiss the Strict Liability Action:

Strict liability will attach where a commercial supplier of a product has breached the duty to supply safe products and the breach was the cause of the plaintiff's damages.

Commercial suppliers owe a duty to all who may be affected by their products. Here Manufacturer was in the business of producing blenders. As such, Manufacturer was a commercial supplier. Consumer purchased and used the Cold Drink Blender and was a foreseeable plaintiff. Thus, Manufacturer owed a duty to Consumer.

A breach of duty is found where the defect, as defined above, made the product unreasonably dangerous. A product is unreasonably dangerous when it poses a substantial likelihood of injury. Additionally, it cannot be assumed that a product is unreasonably dangerous if there are no or references to potential danger on the product, its packaging or in its advertising. Here the product will likely be found defective because of the lack of a locking lid. The absence of a locking feature however did not necessarily render the blender "unreasonably dangerous." The facts indicate there were three factors that contributed to lid popping off the top of the blender and plaintiff's injuries: 1) the expansion of the hot liquid; 2) the overfilling of the blender; and 3) the high mixing speed. Moreover, the Federal safety standards did not mandate a lock, which suggests that blenders without locks are not inherently dangerous to users. Thus, absent proof that the blender was unreasonably dangerous, Consumer will be unable to prove Manufacturer's breach of duty under a strict product liability theory.

Causation in the strict product liability action is established by showing the product was defective when it left the manufacturer's control, it was unchanged when it injured the plaintiff, and the defect caused the injury. Here the design defect existed when the blender left Manufacturer's control. The facts do not indicate any alteration to the product. Thus, causation is satisfied.

The element of damages is satisfied for the reasons stated above.

Based on Consumer's inability to prove the blender was inherently dangerous, Manufacturer's motion to dismiss will likely be granted.

F. Manufacturer's Defenses to the Strict Liability Action:

If Consumer is able to establish the elements of a prima facie case of strict product liability, the following defenses will be considered.

Contributory Negligence
Contributory negligence cannot be used as a defense to strict product liability where the plaintiff has failed to discover or guard against a defect or where the plaintiff's misuse of the product was foreseeable. As discussed above, Consumer's misuse of the blender was foreseeable. Thus, Manufacturer will be unable to rely on this defense.

Assumption of the Risk
See discussion above.

G. Retailer's Motion to Dismiss the Strict Liability Action:

Commercial distributors can be held strictly liable to foreseeable plaintiffs for injuries suffered from defective products. A plaintiff can sue any commercial supplier in the chain of distribution regardless of the relationship between the two. Here, Retailer distributed the blenders to consumers. Thus, Retailer owed Consumer a duty of due care.

Breach of the duty of due care by a commercial distributor may be found where the distributor failed to conduct a reasonable inspection of the product before selling it. Here the facts are silent as to whether or not the alleged defect would have been detectable by Retailer if it had conducted such an inspection. There are no facts indicating Retailer conducted an inspection. Thus, additional information is needed to determine whether Retailer met its duty of care to Consumer.

The element of causation is not met for the reasons stated above.

The element of damages is satisfied for the reasons stated above.

Thus, it is likely that Retailer's motion to dismiss the strict liability action would be successful.

H. Retailer's Defenses to the Strict Liability Action:

If Consumer is able to establish the elements of a prima facie case of strict product liability, Retailer will be unable to rely on any defenses for the reasons stated above.