DN Staff

September 23, 1996

4 Min Read
Does injustice prevail?

Corporations and courtrooms both attempt to achieve "real world" solutions to their respective challenges. Corporations produce and market products; courtrooms resolve product liability lawsuits. Yet a lamentable difference exists between the "truth" of the corporate R&D, design, manufacturing, and labeling facilities and the "admissible evidence" elicited in the courtroom.

The designer's and attorney's goals differ as well. The product developer considers an established engineering criterion and market demand to construct an economically feasible and reasonably safe end product. On the other hand, the courtroom product--the jury verdict--which purportedly concludes a quest for the truth, often results in anything but. The O.J. Simpson and Rodney King cases illustrate how far the jury can wander.

When a double murderer walks out of court free after a year-long trial and only three hours of jury deliberations, does't this make a mockery of our justice system?

Debunking an expert.Recently, I defended a division of Grumman Industries in a jury trial involving a fatal accident in Plymouth, MA. Grumman had designed, manufactured, and sold a truck body which was placed on a GM chassis and sold to a newsdealer. Grumman offered the van-type vehicle with or without a passenger seat. The purchaser specified a single-seat configuration so the driver could leave the vehicle through the passenger-side door at each stop.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff, Mr. Hyman, was training an 18-year-old replacement to assume his duties. As they drove the route, Mr. Hyman stood on the passenger's side of the vehicle which lacked the seat, passenger restraints, and warning labels. When the young driver lost control of the vehicle, it collided with a tree, killing both passengers instantly. No one witnessed the accident.

Two young boys survived Mr. Hyman, a divorced, single parent. He had held two jobs, coached Little League, and cared for the boys who lived with him. As presented to the jury, the case evoked significant sympathy.

According to the plaintiff's hired-gun engineering expert, Grumman was negligent in not providing a seat irrespective of the buyer's desires or needs. He argued that the company violated federal code for failing to provide passenger restraints (with or without a seat) and that warning labels should have been present. On cross-examination, the "expert" admitted he had never designed any motor vehicle and that the absence of a passenger seat and restraints presented a danger that would be obvious to anyone riding in the vehicle. He also took the ludicrous position that the manufacturer had a duty to install a second seat even if it meant the customer would look elsewhere for a truck with one seat.

The jury returned a verdict for the defendant Grumman. The sympathy factor might have swung the case the other way, but for Grumman's careful documentation that it had offered a second seat to the customer. Evidence also showed that Grumman had introduced passenger restraints for delivery vans even before required by law.

While a design engineer may view ridiculous jury verdicts as the norm, they actually comprise a minute percentage of all jury verdicts, criminal and civil, wherein a fair result is achieved and where R&D and the courtroom become the same real world.

Q: How can a designer minimize the prospects of an unfair verdict involving claims against the company's products that involve personal injury?

A: Our jury system basically works. If the designer documents all alternative design considerations, and if these considerations reflect that safety was always a principle design criterion in the decision-making process, the jurors will give this significant weight in their deliberations.

Q: What can a designer do to forestall unfair personal injury claims when the product has risks that cannot be designed out?

A: In such a case, as long as the benefits bestowed by the product to consumers exceed the risks associated with its use, the designer need only warn against any dangers attending the product's use which are not open and obvious to the user. Such warnings should also include foreseeable misuses of the product.

Q: What is an adequate warning sign?

A: The warning must be placed where the user will see it, must be available when the product is used, and should spell out the nature and magnitude of the hazard. An adequate warning should also describe the full extent of the resulting harm if the user fails to comply.

Q: How does a company bring reality to a jury?

A: Offer evidence that documents that considerations were given to the plaintiff's expert's suggestions, but that they weren't followed because the "expert" is either a liar, flat out wrong, or simply doesn't understand the problem.

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like