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In a design defect product liability tort action, the plaintiff must show the risks, costs and benefits of the product in question and alternative designs, and that the magnitude of the danger from the product outweighed the costs of avoiding the danger. There are many different factors that may be considered by the jury in applying a risk-utility analysis. In order to weigh properly the interests of manufacturers (or distributors), consumers, and the public, the risk-utility analysis must be applied in a flexible manner that is necessarily case specific.
Appellee William Boston, a supervising mechanic for the Potomac Electric Power Company ("PEPCO"), was injured on the job due to the malfunction of an Anthony A-146 single cylinder liftgate attached to the back of a PEPCO truck. The liftgate suddenly malfunctioned, and the 1050 pound metal platform fell free, striking Boston and injuring his hip. Boston and his wife filed a complaint against the liftgate manufacturers and the liftgate distributor, appellant Warner Fruehauf. Appellees proceeded to trial only against Warner Fruehauf, seeking damages for personal injury and loss of consortium on a theory of strict liability in tort based on the defective design of the liftgate. At the close of all the evidence, Warner Fruehauf requested the standard "bluebook" strict liability assumption of risk instruction. Standardized Civil Jury Instructions for the District of Columbia No. 11-16 The court gave the instruction over the Bostons' objection. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Warner Fruehauf. The Bostons filed a motion for a new trial. The Superior Court judge concluded that the evidence of record had not warranted instructing the jury on assumption of risk, and entered an order granting the motion. The second trial was presided by the same judge. At the close of all the evidence, the judge concluded that, as a matter of law, the liftgate was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous and that no reasonable juror could find that Boston had assumed the risk of being injured by it. He therefore directed a verdict in favor of the Bostons as to liability. The case was submitted to the jury on damages only. The jury awarded the Bostons a total of $ 550,000.00. Warner Fruehauf noted this appeal.
Was the assumption of risk jury instruction warranted?
The court affirmed, holding that: (1) the assumption of risk jury instruction was unwarranted because the evidence as presented at both trials was insufficient to support a finding that the injured party had either actual knowledge of the specific defect in question or of the danger created by the defect, both of which were required to establish an assumption of risk defense in a strict liability action; and (2) a directed verdict on the issue of liability was proper because the injured party and his wife presented uncontradicted expert testimony that the equipment, as designed, was unreasonably dangerous, the warning of that danger was ineffective, and safer alternative designs providing the same utility were both economically and technologically feasible.