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A defendant in a cigarette product liability warranty claim is not entirely foreclosed from asserting the Correia defense as a matter of law. In certain situations, a consumer's use of cigarettes may be so overwhelmingly unreasonable as to make the imposition of warranty liability on the merchant fundamentally unfair. When a consumer, for example, begins smoking cigarettes knowing that she has a particular medical condition, such as emphysema, that is exacerbated by smoking, the Correia defense may be appropriately invoked. To succeed in interposing the Correia defense in such circumstances, the defendant must demonstrate that the plaintiff knew of her particular medical condition and the risks smoking posed to that specific condition at the time she began smoking. The defendant need not show that the consumer had a medical expert's knowledge of the risk; it is enough for the defendant to demonstrate that the plaintiff knew that smoking would exacerbate her specific illness.
Following the death from lung cancer of her husband, Stephen C. Haglund (decedent), a long-time smoker, Brenda Haglund filed a wrongful death product liability action against Philip Morris Incorporated (Philip Morris) pursuant to G. L. c. 106, § 2-314 (2) (c). In denying all liability, Philip Morris asserted, among other things, that the decedent's decision to begin and continue smoking its cigarettes constituted "unreasonable use" pursuant to the Court’s decision in Correia v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., 388 Mass. 342, 356, 446 N.E.2d 1033 (1983), which held that the user’s negligence does not prevent recovery except when he unreasonably uses a product that he knows to be defective and dangerous. The plaintiff moved for summary judgment to preclude assertion of the Correia defense, arguing that the Correia defense should, as a matter of law, be unavailable because a cigarette is an inherently dangerous product that causes injury when used for its ordinary purpose. The judge treated the summary judgment motion as a motion to strike, denied it, and dismissed the action sua sponte. The plaintiff appealed.
May a cigarette manufacturer in a wrongful death action predicated on breach of the warranty of merchantability assert as an affirmative defense that the decedent smoker’s use of cigarettes was unreasonable?
The high court held that the Correia defense would rarely be available to a cigarette manufacturer because this defense presumed that the product was, in normal circumstances, reasonably safe and capable of being reasonably safely used, and it was undisputed that cigarette smoking was inherently dangerous. However, in some cases, a consumer's behavior could be so overwhelmingly unreasonable – e.g., one who started smoking despite having emphysema -- that the Correia defense could be invoked. The court held that the denial of the motion to strike the defense was proper, but the dismissal was not, because the parties had not had the opportunity to develop evidence supporting their claims and defenses. The quasi-estoppel doctrine did not preclude use of the Corriea defense, as manufacturing, marketing, and selling cigarettes was not "unconscionable."