Articles Posted in Products Liability

Where plaintiff filed a products liability claim based on a hip replacement device she had received, but her hip replacement occurred more than ten years before her suit was filed, dismissal based on the statute of repose was affirmed.

In Jones v. Smith & Nephew Inc., No. W2021-00426-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 767709 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 14, 2022), plaintiff had a hip replacement in January 2009 in which a metal-on-metal device was implanted. This device caused plaintiff significant issues, which resulted in her having to have a second surgery to replace the original replacement device in November 2019.

Plaintiff filed this products liability suit in November 2020, asserting that defendant, who manufactured, marketed, and sold the original replacement device, “actively and intentionally misled the public, medical community, health care providers, and patients into believing these products were safe and effective.” In an amended complaint, plaintiff asserted that the statute of repose found in the Tennessee Products Liability Act (TPLA) would not bar her action because “the injuries suffered by [plaintiff] often take considerably longer than ten years to manifest themselves, in a fashion similar to injuries from exposure to asbestos.” Defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on the statute of repose, which the trial court granted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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Where there were genuine issues of material fact in a products liability case filed against the manufacturer and seller of an ATV, summary judgment for defendants was reversed.

In Vaulton v. Polaris Industries, Inc., No. E2021-00489-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 628502 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 4, 2022), plaintiffs filed this product liability suit after their 14-year-old son was injured, losing his finger, when he and a friend were using a Polaris ATV. The accident occurred when the son noticed that the hook attached to the winch was in the wrong position. While the son was holding the hook, he had his friend push the out button on the winch, but the winch went inward instead of outward, causing the severe injury.

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The Tennessee Supreme Court recently held that product liability defendants “cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from products they did not make, distribute, or sell.” In Coffman v. Armstrong International, Inc., No. E2017-01985-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Jan. 4, 2021), plaintiff was the wife of a deceased employee of a chemical plant. The husband died after being diagnosed with mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure at work.

Plaintiff brought this products liability claim against numerous defendants, including several industrial equipment manufacturers who made and sold equipment used by the deceased husband at his job. Plaintiff claimed that while the equipment made by these defendants did not contain asbestos, the defendants knew that the equipment would have to be integrated with asbestos-containing parts in order to be repaired and maintained. Plaintiff argued that defendants were liable under the Tennessee Products Liability Act (TPLA) because “their products were unreasonably dangerous and because the Equipment Defendants failed to adequately warn users of potential asbestos exposure resulting from the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others,” and that defendants “were liable under a duty-to-warn theory because it was foreseeable, and even intended, that their equipment be repaired and maintained with asbestos-containing materials.”

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Under what circumstances can a product manufacturer be hauled into state court to defend a products liability claim when the injury occurred in that state ? Or, as put by Ford Motor Company in Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court:

Whether the “arise out of or relate to” requirement for a state court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant under Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz is met when none of the defendant’s forum contacts caused the plaintiff’s claims, such that the plaintiff’s claims would be the same even if the defendant had no forum contacts.

The United States Supreme Court has accepted Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court for review, consolidating it with the Minnesota case of Ford Motor Corporation vs. Bandemer.

In an asbestos case, a balancing test should have been used to determine whether manufacturers “had a duty to warn about the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing products manufactured and sold by others.” Further, expert testimony regarding the effects of asbestos exposure on a plaintiff did not have to be based on “firsthand knowledge.”

Coffman v. Armstrong International, Inc., No. E2017-01985-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-02389-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-00062-COA-R3-CV through E2017-00067-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-00069-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-00071-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-00075-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-00078-COA-R3-CV, No. E2017-00995-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2019), was a very long, detailed opinion regarding asbestos-related products liability claims made by plaintiff against many defendants. The trial court had granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims based on a four-year statute of repose, a ten-year statute of repose, and plaintiff’s failure to show causation, but the Court of Appeals vacated the judgments, finding that there were genuine issues of material fact as to all plaintiff’s claims. Continue reading

Tennessee products liability claims are subject to a ten-year statute of repose, and that limitation period is not subject to equitable estoppel.

In Ismoilov v. Sears Holdings Corporation, No. M2017-00897-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 25, 2018), plaintiff brought a products liability suit based on a water heater that broke, causing a leak and damaging his property. The water heater in question was purchased on June 2, 2005, and plaintiff asserted that it was sold with a 12-year warranty. Plaintiff filed his suit on June 16, 2015, seeking damages for property damage to his home, unpaid rent, reduced rental value and cleaning fees. It was undisputed that defendant had replaced the water heater before the suit was filed.

The trial court dismissed all claims other than the warranty claims on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that the claims all sounded in product liability and were time barred by the ten-year statute of repose. The trial court subsequently granted defendant summary judgment on the express warranty claim after defendant put forth evidence that the express warranty included replacement of the damaged heater only. Plaintiff appealed these findings, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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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.

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The United States Supreme Court recently analyzed a federal court’s “inherent authority to sanction bad-faith conduct by ordering a litigant to pay the other side’s legal fees,” holding that such an award was “limited to the fees the innocent party incurred solely because of the misconduct.”

In Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haegger, No. 15-1406, 581 U.S. ____ (April 18, 2017), the Haeger family had sued Goodyear after a Goodyear tire allegedly failed and caused their motorhome to flip over. During the original suit, Goodyear was slow and unresponsive to many of the Haegers’ discovery requests, especially when the Haegers requested internal company tests for the tire at issue. The case eventually settled just before trial. Months later, the Haegers’ attorney noticed a news story indicating that, in a similar suit, Goodyear had disclosed “test results indicating that the tire got unusually hot at highway speeds.” Goodyear subsequently admitted to the attorney that it had withheld information in the Haeger suit.

Because the case had already settled, the district court was limited in its options when addressing Goodyear’s misconduct, and “[a]ll it could do for the Haegers was to order Goodyear to reimburse them for attorney’s fees and costs paid during the suit.” The district court determined that this award could be “comprehensive, covering both expenses that could be causally tied to Goodyear’s misconduct and those that could not.” The district court calculated all the Haegers’ litigation expenses after the very early moment when Goodyear first dishonestly responded to discovery and awarded the Haegers $2.7 million. When explaining its award, the district court stated that while the usual case requires the fees awarded to be causally related to the misconduct, the misconduct in this case “rose to a truly egregious level.” The district court found that the level of misconduct here meant that all attorneys’ fees could be awarded with no need to find a causal link between the fees and the sanctioned party’s conduct.

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In Tatham v. Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc., No. W2013-02604-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Oct. 30, 2015), plaintiff brought a product liability action against defendants after her tire blew out and caused her to have a car accident, breaking her back. Plaintiff purchased rear tires for her vehicle from Firestone Complete Auto Care. She chose the tires because they were “the best value,” but could not remember whether the sales associate discussed any warranties with her. After having the tires installed, plaintiff never tested the air pressure and did not recall running over anything or having any problems with the tires. Less than three months after purchasing the tires, plaintiff was driving on the interstate when one of the tires suddenly failed, causing her to hit the guardrail and flip her car. According to a witness driving behind plaintiff, plaintiff was driving normally and a piece of black was flapping from the tire before the accident. When plaintiff’s car began to veer off the road, the witness saw something black that looked like pieces of a blow-out come out from under plaintiff’s car.

After the accident, a wrecker service towed plaintiff’s car, and her insurance company informed her the car was totaled. At the recommendation of her insurance company, plaintiff signed the title of her car over to the wrecker service, who subsequently destroyed the vehicle and tire. At this time, plaintiff had not yet hired an attorney. Eventually plaintiff did retain counsel and brought this product liability action on the grounds of strict liability, negligence, and breaches of the implied warranty of fitness, implied warranty of merchantability, and duty to warn.

Defendants moved for summary judgment two times, which the trial court denied. Defendants appealed, citing three issues: 1) whether the case should have been dismissed as a sanction for spoliation of evidence with regards to the destruction of the tire; 2) whether the trial court should have granted summary judgment as to causation and the issue of whether the tire was defective or unreasonably dangerous; and 3) whether the trial court should have granted summary judgment because Tennessee allegedly does not recognize the apparent manufacture doctrine.

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In Bradley v. Ameristep, Inc., No. 1:12-cv-01196 (6th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015), plaintiff appealed a district court dismissal of his product liability claims regarding ratchet straps he had purchased and used to secure a hunting treestand. Plaintiff bought the straps in 2007 or 2008, used the straps to secure his treestand for less than two months in 2008, stored the straps inside for almost three years, then used the straps to secure his treestand again in May or June 2011. He did not use the treestand until September 2011, at which time he visually inspected the straps. After plaintiff claimed into the stand, the straps broke and caused plaintiff to fall.

Plaintiff retained two expert witnesses to support his claims, but the district court granted defendant’s motion to exclude both of these experts. Because the expert testimony was excluded, the district court “concluded that there was no evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claims for strict product liability or negligent design and manufacture and granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on those claims.” The district court also granted summary judgment as to the failure to warn claim, determining that plaintiff was aware of the dangers of leaving the straps exposed to the elements, that plaintiff would not have heeded a warning to use a safety harness, and that plaintiff failed to proffer an adequate alternative warning. Accordingly, all of plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed.

On appeal, the Court reversed the dismissal, and in doing so provided an informative summary of Tennessee product liability law. First, the Court addressed the exclusion of one of plaintiffs’ experts, noting that Fed. R. Evid. 702 “impose[s] a threshold requirement of qualification by ‘knowledge, skill, experience, training or education,’ coupled with a two-part test for relevance…and reliability.” While the expert’s “qualifications contain[ed] numerous general attestations of expertise in materials analysis[,]” the district court focused on specific references to the expert’s metallurgical expertise to determine that he did not possess the necessary qualifications for this case. The Court of Appeals held that this was an error, pointing out that the proposed expert had “over thirty-five years of experience analyzing the forces and conditions that lead to product failures, “ that he had “served as an instructor in materials analysis and microscopic analysis” for multiple groups and organizations, and that he had conducted analysis on all types of polymer materials. Based on these qualifications, the expert testimony should have been allowed.

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