$3 Million Dollar Verdict Vacated Due to Defective Verdict Form

In Stockton v. Ford Motor Co., No. W2016-01175-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 12, 2017), the  Court of Appeals vacated a jury verdict in a Tennessee products liability case due to a defective jury verdict form.

Plaintiff was the wife of an auto mechanic who owned his own shop. Husband worked on all types of cars, including cars made by defendant Ford. It was undisputed that for a period of time, all car manufacturers, including Ford, used asbestos in their brake pads and linings. When brake pads and linings are replaced and/or grinded to the correct size, a dust is created, and the dust “can spread into the air and can be inhaled by mechanics and bystanders.” Plaintiff wife never worked directly with the brake pads or linings, but she cleaned the store twice a week and did her husband’s laundry. In 2011, plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which was caused by exposure to asbestos.

Plaintiff filed this products liability suit against Ford seeking compensatory and punitive damages. During a jury trial, Ford pointed out that it had sent husband “warnings that brakes and other components contained asbestos,” and that husband had received training in 1977 and 1982 “explicitly warning that breathing dust from asbestos-containing automobile products could be hazardous…” The jury found Ford 71% at fault for plaintiff’s injuries, and plaintiff was awarded a total judgment of just over $3 million, which Ford appealed.

On appeal, the Court first looked at the jury instructions and verdict form used by the trial court. In Tennessee, “whether a plaintiff’s claim against a product manufacturer is couched in negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty, Tennessee courts have held that the plaintiff must establish that the product was defective or unreasonably dangerous at the time the product left the control of the manufacturer.” In this case, plaintiff was basing her products liability claim on both negligence and strict liability.

For the negligence claim, the trial judge instructed the jury as follows: “And in this case the plaintiff has the burden of proving, number one, the defendant was negligent; number two that the negligence was a legal cause of injury to the plaintiff.” The Court of Appeals found that this instruction did not “fully encapsulate Tennessee law on negligence in products liability cases” because “it does not inform the jury that such negligence must rest on an initial finding that Ford’s brake products were unreasonably dangerous or defective.” For the strict liability claim, however, the trial judge read directly from the Tennessee Pattern Instructions, which correctly included the requirement that the product be defective or unreasonably dangerous. “The question, then, [was] whether the T.P.I. …instructions were sufficient to inform the jury that it would need to decide the question of whether Ford’s products were unreasonably dangerous or defective when that criterion was omitted from the negligence instruction.”

On the jury verdict form, three questions were listed. Number one asked whether Ford “was negligent in failing to adequately warn [plaintiff] and was such negligence a cause of [plaintiff’s] injuries and damages;” number two asked whether “Ford was negligent in the design of its products and was such negligence a cause of [plaintiff’s] injuries and damages;” and number three asked whether “Plaintiffs [have] proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant Ford’s products were defective or unreasonably dangerous at the time they left Defendant Ford’s control and, if so, were such products a cause of [plaintiff’s] injuries and damages.” The jury returned a unanimous yes for question number one, but failed to reach a unanimous conclusion on the other two. In fact, the jury sent a question to the judge asking whether they had to be in agreement about questions one through three before moving to question four about damages. While defense counsel asserted that the jury had to reach a conclusion on all three, the trial judge determined that the jury only had to answer one of the three questions before moving on to damages. Thus, the jury did not provide an answer on questions two or three.

The Court of Appeals found that this was an error. The Court ruled that “the jury form relieve[d] [plaintiff] from the required showing of defective or unreasonably dangerous condition,” and that “[t]he absence of this criterion in Question 1 on the jury form negates the jury’s finding of liability.” “In the absence of a defective or unreasonably dangerous finding, the jury could not have properly found that Defendant Ford was negligent in failing to properly warn [plaintiff.]” Because the jury obviously could not come to an agreement on question three, the question about a defective or unreasonably dangerous condition, the Court determined that the jury’s verdict was “inconsistent” and had to be vacated.

Next, the Court of Appeals moved on to address issues surrounding “foreseeability, duty, and causation.” This portion of the opinion was a bit murky, with even the Court noting that “the application of duty in various cases has been muddled by the elusive idea of foreseeability,” but the issue the Court was analyzing was “whether the trial court erred in its application of Satterfield and its ultimate decision to decline to find, as a matter of law, that Ford owed no duty in this case.”

Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co., 266 S.W.3d 347 (Tenn. 2008), was another asbestos case where the Tennessee Supreme Court addressed the lengths to which a duty might extend. In that case, suit was filed by a young woman’s estate when she died of mesothelioma after regularly doing her father’s laundry, which was exposed to asbestos at his place of work. The Supreme Court held that her claim did survive a motion for summary judgment, as a duty did exist between the employer of the father and the daughter who was in regular contact with him. According to the Court of Appeals in the present matter, the Satterfield decision analyzed the relationship between duty and foreseeability, noting that “concerning the question of duty, a court’s function is more limited than a jury’s. As a practical matter, a court serves as a gate-keeper and may exclude a claim only if it finds, as a matter of law, that the defendant does not owe a duty to the plaintiff.” (quoting Satterfield).

Ford argued that the Satterfield holding should be limited “only to those with whom the manufacturer’s employee comes into regular and close contact,” but the Court rejected this narrow reading. Instead, the Court found that “the Satterfield Court espoused a broad view of duty in take-home asbestos cases by holding that duty may exist even in the absence of privity[.]” Here, where the trial court did not necessarily affirmatively find a duty but “declined to find, as a matter of law, that there was no duty owed by Ford to [plaintiff],” the Court found that it could not conclude that the trial court committed error.

After finding that the trial court did not err, the Court of Appeals continued its analysis, noting in particular that “the respective roles of judge and jury in the foreseeability inquiry is not settled in Tennessee.” While discussing how foreseeability “informs both questions of law (i.e., duty) and questions of fact (i.e., causation) in a negligence analysis,” the Court of Appeals stated that the Satterfield Court “draws no clear line as to when the determination of foreseeability should fall to the judge and when it should fall to the jury.” Further, the Court acknowledged that Satterfield set up an intricate framework for determining duty, but found that the analysis was not required “unless the trial court found (as it did in Satterfield) that there is no duty as a matter of law.” Because the trial court here did not find that there was no duty owed, the Court determined that the Satterfield analysis was unnecessary.

In addition to the majority opinion, two other opinions were filed in this case. Judge Swiney filed a concurring opinion, writing that he fully concurred with the majority opinion in this matter, and also that he found the Satterfield analysis to be unworkable. According to Judge Swiney, his “concerns about a trial judge applying the eight balancing factors as set forth in Satterfield to determine whether a duty exists results from there involving necessary factual determinations best decided by a jury and not a trial judge.” He asserted that facts such as “the foreseeable probability of harm or injury occurring” and “the possible magnitude of the potential harm or injury” would necessarily require factual determinations, and that the Satterfield analysis “has resulted in the jury’s role being reduced far beyond what it should be.”

Judge Stafford wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion, concurring with the majority’s decision that the jury verdict form was defective but dissenting from its duty analysis. Judge Stafford wrote that “the majority opinion largely disregards the detailed framework in Satterfield in favor of applying the ‘default position’ that ‘there is a duty,’ citing both Satterfield and The Restatement (Third) of Torts.” He asserted that the Satterfield Court did not adopt this default position, and stated that while he might “question the wisdom of the rule set forth in Satterfield,” he “would apply the framework adopted by the Satterfield majority to determine whether Ford owed a duty in this case.”

Ultimately, the verdict was vacated and the case was remanded to the trial court.

As to the jury verdict form, plaintiff here will have to retry this case (or reach a settlement) even though she previously secured a large verdict. When there were questions about the verdict form, plaintiff’s attorneys likely wanted whatever result would end in a verdict for her. Where instructions and a form were used that did not comply with Tennessee law, however, the verdict was not allowed to stand anyway.

Regarding the duty analysis, this opinion, along with the concurring and dissenting opinions, show that the duty and foreseeability analysis in this context is “muddled” at best, with Court of Appeals judges unable to agree on how to apply the current rules. It will be interesting to see whether this case is appealed to and taken up by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which could offer some clarity on how and when foreseeability plays into the duty analysis.