Law School Case Brief
Flaminio v. Honda Motor Co. - 733 F.2d 463 (7th Cir. 1984)
"Strict liability" is something of a misnomer in products cases. There is liability only if a product is defective or unreasonably dangerous, and the concepts of "defect" and "unreasonableness" bring into play factors of cost and risk similar to those that determine negligence, an objective standard that is independent of what the particular defendant knew or could have done. In defining unreasonably dangerous, a balancing test is mandated: if the likelihood and gravity of harm outweigh the benefits and utility of the product, the product is unreasonably dangerous. A similar balancing test is used in negligence cases. In a defective design case, there is no practical difference between strict liability and negligence. The test for an "unreasonably dangerous" condition is equivalent to a negligence standard of reasonableness. The proof required of a plaintiff seeking to recover for injuries from an unsafe product is very largely the same, whether his cause of action rests upon negligence, warranty, or strict liability in tort.
In 1978, a middle-aged man named Forrest Flaminio bought a “Gold Wing” motorcycle, a large and powerful touring motorcycle manufactured by the Honda Motor Company of Japan (Japanese Honda), and distributed in the United States by its wholly-owned subsidiary, American Honda Motor Company (American Honda). In one occasion, Flaminio was driving the motorcycle when it began to wobble, shot off the road and crashed, inflicting injuries that have left Flaminio paraplegic. Joined by his wife, who was seeking to recover damages for loss of consortium, plaintiffs Flaminio sued defendants Japanese Honda and American Honda, alleging that either the wobble was due to the defective design of the motorcycle, which should have been corrected, or the defendants should have warned users about the motorcycle's propensity to wobble. The jury exonerated Japanese Honda from all liability but found that American Honda had been negligent and that its negligence had been 30 percent responsible for the accident, and that Flaminio had also been negligent and that his negligence had been 70 percent responsible for the accident. Since under the Wisconsin law, which was the governing law agreed upon by the parties, a contributorily negligent plaintiff cannot recover any damages unless his negligence was not greater than the negligence of the person against whom recovery was sought, judgment was entered for the defendants. On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the jury instructions should have included the manufacturer's duty to warn of a product's dangerous propensity, that evidence of post-accident design changes that reduced wobble was improperly excluded because Fed. R. Evid. 407 did not apply to strict liability cases, and that Flaminio's opportunity to present his case was curtailed because trial was limited to 33 hours.
Did the district court err in ruling in favor of defendants because of: (i) lack of jury instruction regarding the manufacturer’s duty to warn of a product’s dangerous propensity; (ii) inapplicability of Fed. R. Evid. 407 applied; and (iii) limitation imposed on the trial?
No, as to all three questions.
The Court held that there was no reason to believe that the jury would have reached a different conclusion about the manufacturer's liability had plaintiffs' requested instruction been given; besides, plaintiffs' counsel was permitted to discuss strict liability in his closing argument. According to the Court, Rule 407 applied to strict liability cases because it would be immoral for an injurer who became aware of a danger not to take corrective action. The Court disapproved of the practice of placing rigid hour limits on a trial, but the district judge's having done so did not warrant a reversal of the judgment. The Court noted that there was no indication what evidence the plaintiffs would have put on or cross-examination that they would have conducted had there been more time. The judgment was thus upheld.
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