Aubin v. Union Carbide Corp.

177 So. 3d 489 (Fla. 2015)

 

RULE:

In approaching design defect claims, the Florida Supreme Court adheres to the consumer expectations test, as set forth in the Second Restatement of Torts, and rejects the categorical adoption of the Third Restatement of Torts and its reasonable alternative design requirement. The important aspect of strict products liability that led to the court's adoption in West remains true today: the burden of compensating victims of unreasonably dangerous products is placed on the manufacturers, who are most able to protect against the risk of harm, and not on the consumer injured by the product. Increasing the burden for injured consumers to prove their strict liability claims for unreasonably dangerous products that were placed into the stream of commerce is contrary to the policy reasons behind the adoption of strict liability in West, a 1976 Florida case.

FACTS:

Petitioner William P. Aubin contracted peritoneal mesothelioma—an incurable, terminal disease—which he claimed was caused by his exposure to SG-210 Calidria, an asbestos product designed and manufactured by respondent Union Carbide Corporation. The jury returned a verdict for Aubin and determined that Union Carbide was liable for Aubin's damages, in part, under theories of both negligence and strict liability defective design and failure to warn. Union Carbide appealed.

The Third District Court of Appeal reversed the jury verdict and the $6,624,150 judgment after making three key holdings: (1) the trial court erred in failing to apply the Restatement (Third) of Torts ("Third Restatement"), which exclusively adopts the "risk utility" test for a design defect claim and imposes on plaintiffs the requirement of proving a reasonable alternative design; (2) the design defect was not a cause of Aubin's damages; and (3) the jury instructions given by the trial court regarding the failure to warn were misleading because they failed to discuss Union Carbide's learned intermediary defense—a doctrine setting forth the circumstances under which a manufacturer could discharge its duty to warn the end user by reasonably relying on an intermediary, who has received and has knowledge of the extent of the danger. The Third District held that the trial court erred by denying Union Carbide's motion for directed verdict as to the design defect claim and that Union Carbide was entitled to a new trial on Aubin's failure to warn claim.

ISSUE:

On review of a jury's verdict for asbestos plaintiff in a negligence and strict liability case, did the appellate court err in reversing and adopting the Third Restatement's approach, which uses the risk utility test, instead of the consumer expectations test, and requires plaintiffs to establish a reasonable alternative of how a product could have been designed?

ANSWER:

Yes.

CONCLUSION:

In approaching design defect claims, the court adhered to the consumer expectations test set forth in the Second Restatement of Torts while rejecting the categorical adoption of the Third Restatement of Torts and its reasonable alternative design requirement because adhering to the Third Restatement would frustrate the policy reasons behind the adoption of strict liability.

Reversing, the Court held that the Third District erred in determining that the Third Restatement's test for a defective design exclusively applied to a claim of strict products liability, which generally requires plaintiffs to establish a reasonable alternative of how a product could be designed. The Court reaffirmed its adherence to the Second Restatement and the consumer expectations test. The Court further held that the Third District erred in determining that Union Carbide was entitled to a directed verdict on the design defect claim because the Third District improperly conflated the design defect prong with causation. As to the jury instruction claim on the failure to warn, while the Court concluded that the Third District correctly set forth the law regarding the learned intermediary defense, it disagreed with the Third District's conclusion that a new trial is required. The Court held that the jury instructions actually given by the trial court were not misleading and that the trial court did not err in rejecting Union Carbide's proposed jury instructions, which inaccurately discussed the learned intermediary defense.

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