Articles Posted in Product Liability

In a recent Florida wrongful death case, the Florida Supreme Court reversed an intermediate appellate court’s decision that placed a limit on the amount of damages that a person could obtain through a wrongful death lawsuit.

The Facts

The specific facts of the case are less important than its holding. However, the case involved a wrongful death lawsuit brought by a plaintiff against a tobacco company. The plaintiff claimed that the tobacco company was responsible for her mother’s early death at the age of fifty-eight. The plaintiff was forty-two at the time of her mother’s death. There was extensive testimony regarding the closeness of the plaintiff’s relationship with her mother.

The case proceeded to trial, and the jury awarded the plaintiff $4.5 million in damages for the loss of her mother. The defendant tobacco company filed a motion with the court, asking it to reduce the damages amount, but the motion was denied. The tobacco company appealed.

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Earlier this month, a Florida appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case brought against a woman who developed lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The Florida personal injury lawsuit was filed against the manufacturer of the cigarettes to which the woman claimed she became addicted, which subsequently caused her illness. The case required the appellate court to review the evidentiary rulings made by the lower court and determine if they were proper. Ultimately, the court concluded that the rulings below were not proper and necessitated that the plaintiff be granted a new trial.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff’s claim against the defendant was that she became addicted to the defendant’s cigarettes and as a result of that addiction developed lung cancer and COPD. During trial, the plaintiff called the pulmonologist who treated her over the years to establish that she was addicted to cigarettes. However, when the defendant objected to the question of whether the pulmonologist thought the plaintiff was addicted to cigarettes, the court sustained the objection, finding that he was not qualified to offer his opinion about any potential addiction.

Later in the trial, when it was the defendant’s turn to cross-examine the pulmonologist, the defense attorney asked whether, in the pulmonologist’s opinion, the plaintiff could have stopped smoking whenever she became “sufficiently motivated to do so.” The plaintiff unsuccessfully objected, and the pulmonologist was permitted to answer in the affirmative.

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Although we expect all products to be “safe,” there are certain products for which our expectation of safety is  heightened. Indeed, given the vulnerability of children, products intended for use by juveniles are expected to be designed in a manner that accounts for both youthful impetuousness and relative physical fragility. Nevertheless, not all products meet reasonable expectations. For instance, in a recent decision, Bogatov v. City of Hallandale Beach, the Fourth District Court of Appeal was tasked with determining whether liability could be imposed on the manufacturer of an allegedly defective jungle gym.

Bogatov started with a fall at the playground of a Hallandale Beach park. The plaintiff in this case is the father of a two-year-old who was at the playground with his nanny when he fell. The child sustained serious injuries as a result of the fall, and local law enforcement investigated the incident. During the investigation, the nanny, who was the only eyewitness to the fall, told law enforcement that the child was on the jungle gym at the time of the fall. Following this string of events, the father filed suit against the city of Hallandale Beach, alleging that the city’s negligence in maintaining the playground resulted in the child’s injury. The complaint was later amended to add the jungle gym’s manufacturer, which the plaintiff alleged was negligent in the design and construction of the jungle gym, in particular by failing to place grasping handles on the jungle gym.

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Many South Floridians understand that pools come with risks. Indeed, pool owners are  very aware of the dangers associated with falls and drowning. Notwithstanding the importance of these commonplace risks, the pool-related injury at issue in a recent product liability decision from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, Dominguez v. Hayward Indus., Inc., was certainly not of a kind anyone would anticipate.

Dominguez arose from the unexpected explosion of a pool filter, which occurred in November 2012. At the time of the explosion, one plaintiff in this case was near the pool, which had been completed in 1999, and he sustained head injuries. He and his wife brought suit against the manufacturer/distributor of the filter, the company that installed the pool and acted as a distributor of the filter, and the pool contractor. The plaintiff asserted claims for strict product liability and negligence against the first two defendants and negligence claims against all of the defendants. The plaintiffs also asserted a loss of consortium claim. The trial court ultimately granted a final judgment in the defendants’ favor, and the plaintiff then filed this appeal.

Completion of the pool installation, including the pool filter, concluded more than 12 years prior to the 2012 explosion. Accordingly, the Court needed to determine whether the filter fell within an exception, specifically whether the filter was an improvement to real property. The Third District concluded it did not. The statute does not define “improvement on real property,” but the Court turned to the definition provided by the Florida Supreme Court. See Hillsboro Island House Condominium Apartments, Inc. v. Town of Hillsboro Beach, 263 So. 2d 209, 213 (Fla. 1972). Ultimately, the Third District found that the term does not encompass a product that “maintains its fundamental characteristics when it is connected to real property,” which is commonly known as a “fixture” in property law. Here, the pool filter did not improve on the real property but instead was like a refrigerator, which may be attached to property but still functions as an independent component. Accordingly, since the filter did not fall within this or any other exception to the statute of repose, the Third District concluded that the statute applied and barred the plaintiff’s claims.

It is common knowledge that the manufacturer of a product may be held liable for injuries arising from that product’s faulty design or construction. However, many are unaware the manufacturer may, in certain circumstances, be held liable for certain risks its product poses, even if the risks fall short of being a design defect. The issue of when a manufacturer needs to provide warning to a consumer was recently addressed in Trek Bicycle Corporation v. Miguelez, a recent decision from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals.

The plaintiff in this case was riding a bicycle manufactured by Trek Bicycle Corporation along the Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami when the bicycle abruptly stopped. As a result, the plaintiff was jolted onto the handlebars and then to the ground of the causeway. The plaintiff sustained various face, jaw, and shoulder injuries. An examination of the bicycle revealed that an object had become lodged in the front wheel. Consequently, the object had hit the back side of the front carbon fiber forks of the bike, which caused the wheel to stop abruptly. The plaintiff brought suit against Trek as well as the retailer from which he purchased the bike. He asserted various product liability claims, including defective manufacture and defective design of the carbon forks. In addition, he brought a negligence claim predicated on the defendants’ failure to warn about the characteristics of the carbon fiber that created an added risk of wheel stoppage. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict on the product liability claims, but it declined to grant the motion for a directed verdict on the failure to warn claim. Following the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor on the failure to warn claim. The jury only found Trek liable for failure to warn and awarded 800,000 dollars in damages.

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Even when performed safely, surgery presents a variety of different risks for a patient. However, not typically among the variety of different risks one considers prior to surgery is the possibility that medical equipment to be implanted is defective. Despite not falling within the ambit of typically considered risks, medical devices, like other products, can be defective in either their design or their construction and lead to patient injury. Harm arising from an alleged defect in medical equipment serves as the central issue in Witt v. Howmedica Osteonics Corp., a recent decision from the District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

At issue in Witt is an alleged defect in an artificial knee manufactured by Howmedica Osteonics Corporation. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged in her Amended Complaint that the artificial knee had “unreasonably dangerous design defects such as the potential of the Knee to loosen after being implanted, leading to failure of the Femoral Component” and that the plaintiff’s alleged diagnosis of “loose right knee prosthesis” was “due to failure of the X-Small Right Medial/left Lateral EIUS Knee Femoral Component …” Following her diagnosis, the plaintiff brought a suit against Howmedica for both strict product liability and negligence. In this decision, the trial court had to determine whether to grant Howmedica’s motion to dismiss, which argued that the plaintiff had failed to plead facts in the Amended Complaint that, if taken as true, would state a plausible claim to relief.

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As the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Marina Dodge, Inc. v. Quinn demonstrates, sometimes the hardest part of a lawsuit is getting the opposing party in court. In Quinn, the Court of Appeals found that the courts of Florida could not exercise personal jurisdiction over two New York auto-retailer corporations that had been sued following a motor vehicle accident in Broward County, Florida.

As noted above, Quinn followed a 2007 motor vehicle accident that led to the serious injury of one of the drivers. The injured driver, the plaintiff in this case, purchased the vehicle involved in the crash in New York four years earlier, when she was still a resident there. Sometime after this transaction but before the accident, the driver relocated to South Florida, where she now resides. After the crash, the seriously injured driver sued the other driver involved in the accident as well as Marina Dodge, Inc. and Webster Auto Brokers, Inc., two New York auto retailing corporations, in the Broward County Circuit Court. With respect to the auto retailers’ liability, the plaintiff argued that the vehicle she purchased in New York was defective and that the defective condition led to the accident and thus her injuries. The corporations both moved to have the claims against them dismissed, arguing that the courts of Florida could not exercise jurisdiction over them. The trial court, however, denied both motions, stating that the corporations had “continuous contact that took place over years with various entities sufficient to permit jurisdiction to lie in the State of Florida.”

Despite the trial court’s certainty on the question of jurisdiction, the Court of Appeal reversed in a unanimous decision. Generally, there are two ways for a plaintiff to show that a court has personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant. First, one can show that the court had specific jurisdiction. For specific jurisdiction to exist, one must first show that the state’s long-arm-statute covers the acts at issue in the suit. If that prong is met, one must then show that there exist sufficient “minimum contacts” between the out-of-state defendant and the state where jurisdiction is sought. For there to be sufficient “minimum contacts,” one must generally demonstrate that the defendant “deliberately [engaged] in significant activities within a State or has created “continuing obligations” between himself and residents of the [state]” such that “he manifestly has availed himself of the privilege of conducting business there.”Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 475-76 (U.S. 1985) (internal quotations marks and citations omitted). Alternatively, one can show that general jurisdiction exists. Since the Florida long-arm-statute provision for general jurisdiction is read coextensively with the constitutional requirement for general jurisdiction, see Caiazzo v. Am. Royal Arts Corp., 73 So.3d 245, 250 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) (pdf downloadable link), one must just show that the defendant engaged in “continuous, substantial, and systematic” contact with the state.
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