Category Archives: Defective Products

Economic Losses and Loss of Consortium Claims in Oregon Product Liability Cases

Economic Loss is Not Available in Oregon in Strict Product Liability Cases

The recovery of economic loss such as lost profits or lost sales is not recoverable in Oregon in product liability actions where strict liability is alleged.  In Brown v. Western Farmers Assoc., 268 Or 470, 480 (1974), the Oregon Supreme Court held that strict product liability was not designed or intended to offer a remedy for such commercial aspirations as sales and profits.  Oregon is a physical injury state and the Oregon appellate courts have uniformly held that strict liability is not a remedy for purely economic loss in the absence of a physical injury to persons or property.  Russell v. Deere & Co., 186 Or App 78, 84-85 (2003).

Lost Income to a Spouse Who Cares for an Injured Spouse is Not Recoverable as Part of a Loss of Consortium Claim in a Product Liability Action

It should also be noted that a spouse is not entitled to recover for lost income sustained as a result of having to care for her injured spouse as part of a claim for loss of consortium.  Axen v. American Home Products Corp., 158 Or App 292, 309-311, adh’d to on recons, 160 Or App 19 (1999).  In Axen, a husband and wife brought a strict product liability claim for injuries to the husband allegedly caused by a prescription drug.  The husband and wife alleged that the husband’s use of the drug Cordarone caused a loss of vision.  The wife argued that she was forced to take an early retirement in order to care for her husband and as a result, lost retirement benefits of $436,392.00.  The jury awarded the wife nearly one million dollars for loss of consortium.  The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the wife’s award of economic damages.  The court stated it would adhere to the “traditional rule” that lost income is not a proper subject of a damage award for loss of consortium.  Id. at 311.

Discovery and Admissiblity of Evidence of Prior Claims in Oregon Product Liability Cases

Olson Brooksby handles a wide variety of product liability cases involving products such as helicopter engines, heavy equipment, steel, toys, tools, household appliances and chemicals, paints, and solvents.  We frequently work with clients who have had prior claims involving allegedly defective products.  In product liability litigation, plaintiffs’ lawyers almost always ask for documentation involving prior claims.  Usually, plaintiffs issue a broad request for documents regarding all prior incidents of any kind related to the model of product at issue or any version of that model.

The Standard for Discovery of Prior Claims

In Oregon, evidence regarding prior claims is generally discoverable.  ORCP 36 B(1).  In order for an opposing or other party to obtain discovery, the evidence should simply be relevant and reasonably likely to lead the discovery of admissible evidence.  Therefore, on a motion to compel, product liability defense counsel should expect that documentation concerning prior claims will be discoverable, particularly in cases concerning home appliances and other mechanical products.

An objection to a discovery request on the basis that the evidence may not be admissible at trial is not proper.  Oregon trial courts will allow discovery of evidence of prior claims if the products, conditions, or uses are merely “similar” as opposed to “identical.”

By way of a hypothetical example, suppose Large Bike Manufacturing Company manufactured a number of bikes during the past few months or years and the front rim of the tire was bending when bumps were hit that similar bikes were able to withstand.  Also suppose that a bicyclist was injured when the front rim on one of the bike models struck a speed bump even though the bicyclist was riding cautiously and reasonably.  On a motion to compel, most Oregon state court trial judges would order the production of all prior incidents of injury regarding other bike models with the same wheel, not just the model of bike that the bicyclist was riding.  The court would also likely order production of other claims of injury on all bikes, even if such injuries were caused by other mechanical failures.

The Standard for Admissibility of Prior Claims

The admissibility of evidence of other claims is governed by Oregon Evidence Code (“OEC”) 401, which defines relevant evidence; OEC 402, which provides that relevant evidence is generally admissible; and OEC 403, which provides for the exclusion of relevant evidence in the event prejudice, confusion, or undue delay associated with the admission of the disputed evidence, in this case of prior claims, outweighs the probative value or helpfulness to the trier of fact.  Whether evidence of prior claims is discoverable and whether such evidence is admissible are two distinct issues.

With respect to the admissibility of evidence of prior claims, as opposed to the mere discovery of prior claims, OEC 401 generally provides that evidence of similar prior conduct, events, accidents, or even negligence, is generally held to be inadmissible to prove negligence or lack of negligence in the case being litigated.

However, evidence of prior similar acts, conduct, or events, which Oregon courts universally have ruled includes prior claims, is often held admissible to prove causation, danger, knowledge, intent, or the existence of a particular defect.  One of the seminal cases on this issue is Benjamin v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 185 Or App 444 (2002), rev den, 335 Or 479 (2003).  Admissibility of the allegedly similar act will depend on whether prior conduct or events occurred under “similar conditions and circumstances,” although identical circumstances are not required.  Lakin v. Senco Products, Inc., 144 Or App 52, (1996), aff’d, 325 Or 438 (1997).

Whether the conditions and circumstances are substantially similar enough to allow admission of the evidence of prior claims is a decision for the court and will be reviewed on appeal under an abuse of discretion standard, which is a high standard.  As noted above, identical circumstances or an identical product is not necessary for admission of such evidence. Generally, unless there is clear prejudice, evidence of prior claims will be admissible.  The judge will usually comment that defense counsel is free to engage in cross-examination on the differences in the claims and argue that they go to the weight of the evidence.

In a product liability case, regardless of what the product may be, defense counsel should be prepared for a ruling that evidence of prior claims is discoverable.  Counsel should also be prepared for a ruling that evidence of prior claims is admissible.  Therefore, it may be advantageous to file a motion in limine to exclude evidence of prior claims on the grounds that they are either dissimilar, or that there is insufficient information to even determine whether they are dissimilar.  The motion in limine should be filed before trial, so that even if the court admits evidence of prior claims, experts and witnesses can be prepared to address the prior claims in a way that minimizes any perceived wrongdoing.  Counsel should also consider the possibility that any product design changes may be considered “subsequent remedial measures” and should plan any motions in limine accordingly.

 

An Introduction to Burn Injury Significance and Burn Centers

Burns Are Significant Injuries and Can Lead to Some of the Highest Jury Verdicts

Olson Brooksby appreciates the potential high-exposure value of burn injury cases.  Scott Brooksby has significant experience in serious, total body surface area (tbsa) burn injury and wrongful death cases.  Our lawyers understand the delicate nature of large burn injury cases and work to minimize exposure to our clients.

Defendants potentially subject to burn injuries should employ best safety practices and make every attempt to avoid such injuries.  Burns are one of the most serious injuries in personal injury cases.  They may be the result of chemical fire or exposure, explosions, paints, solvents, or conventional fire.  Sometimes burns are the result of contact with hot equipment or other product liability related events.  The defense of serious burn injuries, including those related to aviation, product liability and heavy manufacturing is a large part of the defense practice of Olson Brooksby.  A bad burn case in an aviation or heavy manufacturing accident, or as the result of a product liability defect can easily present high financial exposure to manufacturers and/or insurers.  Settlement exposure can climb into the millions or tens of millions, with verdicts at least as high.

Even when there appears to be a strong defense, defendants should not underestimate the overwhelming sympathy a jury will feel when it sees a burn victim, particularly with serious facial burns or burns to the extremities.  A good plaintiff’s lawyer will ask the jury to consider things like the profoundly disfiguring effects of a bad facial burn and the pain that everyday exposure to sunshine will cause its victim for life, or the lifelong gawking stares it will draw.

Similarly tragic are severe burns to the hands, which cannot be restored to even near full function or pre-burn aesthetics and result in pain every time the victim is touched.  When liability is clear, burn cases should be settled because, unlike other personal injury cases, deformities caused by burns can incense juries to the point where they cannot put their emotions aside.  The result can be verdicts in the millions or tens of millions, including punitive damages (particularly if children are involved or there is perceived recklessness).  Although the amount of burn verdicts used to depend on the region of the country where the case originated, such verdicts are now generally high in every jurisdiction.

If the burn injury case must be tried, it must be done with great sympathy for the victim  and careful attention to the medical aspects of the case, including future treatment, which may last decades and cost into the six or seven figures.

When trying a burn injury case, it is important to know where the injury occurred.  If a plaintiff has to be air lifted to a burn center, that can radically change the extent of the injury.  Similarly, it is important to know the details of the burn center where the plaintiff was treated because that can also change the extent of the injury and thus affect the jury verdict amount.

The Location of the Accident Can Change the Extent of the Injury and the Jury Verdict

In those industries where serious conventional burns are common, such as aviation disasters or steel or metal manufacturing, “serious” can arbitrarily be defined as full-thickness burns over 20% or more of the tbsa.  The location of a burn center and the length of time to transport the victim to the burn center can be outcome-determinative.  This is also particularly true where babies and children or those over sixty-five are the victims, or where there are serious burns to the face, head, extremities, or internal organs.

Manufacturers and insurers obviously do not choose where burn centers are located.  After an accident, first responders will obviously make needed decisions about transport.  Most heavy manufacturing, including that of aviation hot section components, is done near large metropolitan areas that typically have at least one burn center.  Perhaps some of the greatest danger lies in cases in remote areas where individuals are subject to burns from allegedly defective products.  For example, a person camping in a remote area of the Western United States who is badly burned by kerosene at a remote campsite may not be able to reach a burn center for hours.  There may be no cellular phone service and a helicopter ambulance may have to be dispatched from hundreds of miles away.

Depending on the severity and tbsa burned, the size and related capabilities of the burn center will have a direct impact on the plaintiff’s recovery, and consequently, the ultimate exposure to the manufacturer and/or insurer in any settlement or verdict.

All Burn Centers are Not the Same–They May Have Varying Treatment Philosophies, Training and Capabilities

The size of the burn center can also be outcome-determinative because smaller centers, such as the Oregon Burn Center at Emanuel Hospital, are generally not large enough to perform a full excision and grafting in high tbsa burn cases.  A full excision and grafting is where they do all of the procedures at once instead of one at a time.  Some burn physicians believe that, depending on the case, better outcomes are achieved through full excision and grafting in high tbsa burn cases.

There are approximately 45 regional burn centers in the United States.  Verification of burn centers is a joint program administered in the form of a rigorous review of the applicant centers by the American Burn Association (ABA) and the American College of Surgeons (ACS).  Many states do not have a regional burn center and most states have only one or two.  California has the most, with seven.  Most burn centers are run by a single group or an extremely limited number of groups of burn surgeons who practice at the facility.

Unlike hospitals, burn centers do not typically extend general privileges to physicians.  Most burn surgeons have been trained as general surgeons, and then have gone on to receive additional specialized training in burns.   Along the population corridor running down I-5 between Seattle and Davis, California there are three verified regional burn centers, one each in Seattle (Harborview), Portland (The Oregon Burn Center at Emanuel Hospital), and The UC Davis Regional Burn Center.

Training and available resources vary from center to center.  Burn centers also tend to have more pronounced treatment philosophies and cultures because they are staffed by relatively few surgeons who generally practice in the same group or just a few groups.  However, although burn center practice varies, it is imperative that those who are seriously burned reach a regional burn center as soon as possible because specialized treatment is inarguably outcome-determinative

The mechanics of injury, lots of fire, accelerant, and contact with temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees are factors that are considered when determining whether burns are graftable from point of admission.  In any serious burn case, most intermediate facilities such as a conventional hospitals will seek to transfer a seriously burned patient, almost always by air, to a regional burn center as soon as stabilization occurs.

 

The Single Test for Product Liability in Oregon

Olson Brooksby Has Extensive Experience With Product Liability Work in Oregon

Olson Brooksby defends product liability (including consumer products regulated by the CPSC such as lead toys and non-consumer products such as aircraft) and personal injury cases, with an emphasis on the defense of high exposure cases.

Both Kristin Olson and Scott Brooksby have tried product liability cases to verdict.  Their product liability practice includes, but is not limited to: aviation (aircraft and components), heavy equipment (including tractors, forklifts, loaders, logging equipment, and scissor-lifts), and industrial equipment used in the fabrication of raw steel and metals (including rollers, punch-presses, laser torches and other sample burners and test equipment).

Kristin Olson and Scott Brooksby also have experience with the following kinds of cases:

– Aviation, aircraft and their component parts.

– Paints, solvents, coatings, detergents, and pesticides, including benzene and toluene cases which resulted in liver and kidney transplants.

– Toys and recreational products, including paint ball guns, toys containing battery fire hazards, pogo sticks, pools, lead toys imported from India that were swallowed by children, toys allegedly containing lead paint, and inflatable and other recreational towables pulled behind boats.

– Tempered glass and conventional glass.

– Foreign objects or other alleged dangerous defects in food and drink products and packaging.

– Drug and medical device cases, including fraudulent vitamins and device replacements for hips, knees, ray cages and pedicle screws.

– Home appliance cases involving allegedly defective washers, dryers, stoves, heaters and heating equipment, green technology, and water heaters.

– Chemicals that resulted in a fatal automobile fire, burning a family of five, including fatal burns to two children.

The Consumer Expectation Test

Three types of product defects are recognized in Oregon: design defects, manufacturing defects, or failure to warn.  In any of these cases, to prevail on a product liability claim, the plaintiff must prove that the product was unreasonably dangerous.  In design defect cases, risk-utility proof is not required to make a prima facie case.

Although Kristin Olson and Scott Brooksby have defended cases involving countless different types of consumer and other products, the test for liability in each case in Oregon is “the consumer expectation test” and this test is always the same.  It applies regardless of whether the case is a negligence case or a strict liability action.

Under the consumer expectation test, the question is whether the product was “dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.”  McCathern v. Toyota Motor Corp., 332 Or 59, 77 (2001) (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §402A comment I (1979)).  The plaintiff has the burden of proving that a product is unreasonably dangerous.

The consumer expectation test is objective.  Jurors may not consider their own personal subjective views as to whether the product contained conditions that they themselves would expect.  Similarly, they may not put themselves in the position of the injured plaintiff to make such a determination, but must apply the views of the community as a whole.  The McCathern decision also made clear that the consumer expectation test is the only test properly given to the jury in a strict product liability case.  For a good overview of Oregon product liability law, the McCathern decision is worth reading.

Who are Proper Defendants?

Strict tort liability applies to any person engaged in the business of selling or leasing products for use or consumption.  This includes manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, distributors, lessors, or in short, any person in the “stream of commerce”.  For a party to be held strictly liable in tort, that party must have sold or leased a product under the statute.  The Oregon product liability statute, codified at ORS 30.900 et. seq. provides that, “a manufacturer, distributor, seller or lesser of a product” may be subject to an action for a product that is unreasonably dangerous.  The Oregon Legislature did not adopt the caveat to RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §402A caveat 3 (1965), which contains the caveat for component-part manufacturers.  The Oregon
Supreme Court has ruled that component part manufacturers can be subject to strict liability for the sale of defective components.  However, the manufacturer of a component part is not the subject of strict liability if the component was misapplied rather than defectively designed.

Important Considerations When Defending Products Cases in Oregon

One of the most important considerations at trial is jury selection.  What are the perspective jurors’ views of governmental regulation of the product involved and products generally?  Does the jury have preconceived attitudes and experiences that will make them favorable opinion leaders during jury deliberations, or do they have negative attitudes and opinions toward manufacturers or corporations that make them predisposed to award plaintiffs large verdicts no matter what the evidence?

Does one of the many defenses, including statute of limitations, statute of ultimate repose, alteration or unforeseeable misuse or modification apply?  Was the danger of the product so open and obvious, and an alternative unavailable such that the utility and necessity of the product outweighed any danger?  These and many other defense questions will require further analysis well before trial begins, and often before discovery begins.  Disciplined defense strategy formation and execution, exhaustive development of potential defenses, and jury research are all be valuable in attempting to obtain defense or low verdicts.

 

 

 

Federal Government Regulation of Consumer Product Safety and Mandatory Reporting of Consumer Product Defects to the CPSC

Olson Brooksby frequently counsels local and national clients on whether or not the consumer products they manufacture or sell contain a safety defect that they would be required to report to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Federal Regulation

The Congress of the United States established the Consumer Product Safety Act (“CPSA”), codified at 15 U.S.C. §§2007-2089.

Complete analysis of the CPSA is beyond the scope of this article.  Pursuant to the CPSA, Congress established the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“Commission”) to regulate consumer product safety in the United States.  Under the CPSA, the Commission has the power to develop regulations related to the safety of consumer products, which are generally contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Under 15 USCS § 2052(5), a “consumer product” means “any article, or component part thereof, produced or distributed (i) for sale to a consumer for use in or around a permanent or temporary household or residence, a school, in recreation, or otherwise, or (ii) for the personal use, consumption or enjoyment of a consumer in or around a permanent or temporary household or residence, a school, in recreation, or otherwise…”

Specifically excluded from regulation by the CPSC are tobacco, motor vehicles, pesticides, aircraft and aircraft components, boats, drugs and medical devices and food.  Even if these excluded products are purchased for consumer use, they are not subject to regulation or jurisdiction by the CPSC.   The Commission does tend to heavily regulate consumer products, especially children’s items, such as: car seats, children’s pajamas, strollers, cribs, toys, some recreational products, certain home appliances, and tools.  The CPSC has passed specific regulatory acts such as the “Children’s Flammable Pajamas Act” associated with consumer products that target vulnerable users, primarily children and vulnerable adults.   A link to the CPSC website, which contains useful product safety information, including information for manufacturers such as current product recalls, is found at http://www.cpsc.gov/.

The Requirement of Reporting Consumer Product Defects to the CPSC

Although complete analysis of reporting requirements are beyond the scope of this article, Section 15(b) of the CPSA establishes reporting requirements (“Section 15(b) reports”) for manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of consumer products.  In summary, each must notify the commission (generally within 24 hours) if they obtain information that “reasonably supports the conclusion” that a product (1) fails to comply with an applicable consumer product safety rule or with a voluntary consumer product safety standard, (2) fails to comply with any other rule, regulation, standard or ban under the CPSA or any other Act enforced by the Commission such as the Children’s Gasoline Burn Prevention Act, Refrigerator Safety Act or Flammable Fabrics Act, (3) contains a defect which could create a substantial product hazard, or (4) creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.

Under the CPSA, a private right of action exists for any person injured by violation of a consumer product safety rule promulgated by the Commission.  Manufacturers should be aware that the CPSA contains some sharp teeth and courts may award attorney fees as part of the injured person’s recovery.  15 U.S.C. §2072.  Under the CPSA, the CPSC has broad enforcement powers and a number of tools to ensure the safety of consumer products.  However, under the CPSA, the CPSC is also charged with assisting manufacturers, distributors and retailers of products with known defects in the development of a “Corrective Action Plan” (“CAP”), and although the CPSC enforcement powers have sharp teeth, the CPSC is also focused on working to develop voluntary corrective action plans and engaging in cooperation during corrective action plan implementation.

Olson Brooksby frequently counsels manufacturers on whether to pass along reports they have received or internally-developed information that suggests that a product may contain a defect that would require reporting under Section 15(b) of the CPSA.  While comprehensive analysis of the Section 15(b) reporting requirements are beyond the scope of this article, the Commission has published a useful abbreviated publication that discusses reporting and product recalls.

Why Familiarity And Compliance With CPSC Mandatory Reporting Requirements Matters

Although it should go without saying, manufacturers, especially those focused on products for babies, children and household consumers (such as cleaning products, flammable products, etc.), must be aware of whether the Commission is considering or has established specific rules governing their products.  Manufacturers, distributors and retailers should be aware of the basic reporting requirements to the CPSC under Section 15(b) if they become aware of information that reasonably supports the conclusion that their product contains a defect and should voluntarily report.

The Commission has the power to require mandatory recalls, but will typically offer a manufacturer the option of conducting a voluntary recall before issuing a recall order.  Prudent manufacturers of consumer products, especially those for which the Commission has promulgated specific rules or standards, should have a recall plan developed in advance because, whether voluntary or mandatory, the Commission will expect the company to commence the necessary recall action plan quickly and such plans are typically very involved.  Any action taken by the Commission, whether in the form of corrective action or a recall can have serious consequences for manufacturing cycles and the costs associated with a recall can be very high.  For more on this issue, please feel free to contact our office.