O'Brien v. Muskin Corp.

154 Mass. 272, 28 N.E. 266 (1891)



Risk-utility analysis is appropriate when the product may function satisfactorily under one set of circumstances, yet because of its design present undue risk of injury to the user in another situation. Another standard is the consumer expectations test, which recognizes that the failure of the product to perform safely may be viewed as a violation of the reasonable expectations of the consumer.


Plaintiff was seriously injured when he slipped on the liner in a swimming pool manufactured by defendant. Plaintiff sued defendant in strict liability alleging defendant's product was defectively designed. At trial, plaintiff's expert testified that the pool's latex bottom was more than twice as slippery as rubber. At the close of plaintiff's case, the trial court concluded that plaintiff had failed to prove a design defect and took away from the jury the issue of whether manufacturing a pool with a vinyl liner constituted either a design defect or manufacturing defect. The appellate court reversed and remanded for trial.


Can the jury can be permitted to determine if the risks of injury outweighed the utility of the product, as to constitute a defect?




On further appeal, the court ruled that the trial court erred in the refusal to instruct the jury on design defect because state-of-the-art evidence as to alternatives to latex pools was important to the question on whether the risk posed by the pool liner outweighed its utility. Risk-utility analysis includes other factors such as the state-of-the-art at the time of the manufacture of the product. The state-of-the-art refers to the existing level of technological expertise and scientific knowledge relevant to a particular industry at the time a product is designed. Some factors relevant in risk-utility analysis are: (1) The usefulness and desirability of the product -- its utility to the user and to the public as a whole. (2) The safety aspects of the product -- the likelihood that it will cause injury, and the probable seriousness of the injury. (3) The availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be as unsafe. (4) The manufacturer's ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility. (5) The user's ability to avoid danger by the exercise of care in the use of the product. (6) The user's anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability, because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions. (7) The feasibility, on the part of the manufacturer, of spreading the loss by setting the price of the product or carrying liability insurance.

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