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Future of products liability rests in the hands of the State Supreme Court

Written on Behalf of Brian S. Kabateck | Kabateck LLP
December 16, 2016

If a car manufacturer creates a safety feature but doesn’t automatically include the device in every vehicle it sells, is the automaker designing a defective product? That’s the question the California Supreme Court will evaluate as it considers the decision in Kim v. Toyota Motor Corporation, which if reversed, could change the future of products liability litigation.

The case stems from a liability lawsuit involving plaintiff William Jae Kim who sued Toyota Motor Corporation over claims the company was negligent when it designed his 2005 Tundra pickup truck. Kim suffered serious neck and spinal cord injuries in a 2010 accident on the Angeles Forest Highway. While driving 40-50 mph on a wet road, Kim swerved to avoid another vehicle, lost control of his Toyota Tundra and drove into an embankment. That’s the type of accident an electronic stability control (ESC) or vehicle stability control (VSC) feature is designed to prevent.

Kim sued Toyota claiming that his accident happened because the base model of the Toyota Tundra lacked ESC and the absence of this safety feature was a design defect. ESC was optional, not standard equipment on Tundras when Kim’s vehicle was manufactured.

The jury had to consider two tests that are used to identify a defectively designed product in a products liability action. The first is the “consumer expectation test” which is the general expectation of how a product should perform safely under normal circumstances. In the second “risk-benefit” test, the plaintiff must prove that the way a product is designed caused the injury.

If the plaintiff succeeds, then the burden is shifted to the defendant to prove that the benefits of the product’s design outweighs its safety risks. The jury can also consider the severity of the danger, the likelihood an accident could occur, the practicability of a safer design, the cost to improve the design and any negative consequences to the consumer as a result of redesigning the product.

In Kim’s case the jury sided with Toyota finding the Tundra did not have a design defect. The Second District Court of Appeal upheld that decision by confirming the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying Kim’s motion to exclude all evidence of the auto industry’s custom and practice. Now the Supreme Court will assess the decision of the trial court which will either clarify or confirm the law on analyzing complex products liability litigation under the risk-benefits test.

If you or a loved one has experienced a catastrophic injury due to a product defect, you must learn more about your legal rights to receive benefits which you are entitled to if your injury is due to a negligent party. Give one of our experienced personal injury attorneys at Kabateck LLP a call today to learn more about recovering damages and to explore your options. Our accident lawyers in Los Angeles can help you achieve the maximum compensation for the harm you or a loved one has suffered.