Divided by design: reconciling the AEMLD's 'mixed' design-defect approach.

Author:Duplechin, Ryan J.
Position:Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    As products liability law developed, determining how and why a dangerous condition in a product's design should, or should not, be characterized as "defective" was the most "baffling problem." (1) This problem occurred mostly because the Restatement (Second) of Torts' blanket strict liability standard proved unfit to handle complex product designs. (2) Accordingly, determining the proper design-defect test has been termed the "central issue in products liability law for the last four decades." (3)

    Anyone who attended law school in the past fifty years can recall memories from first-year torts class and the concept of strict liability. (4) In a classic example, a manufacturer is held strictly liable in tort where a consumer product explodes, causing injury. This example describes a manufacturing defect because the product failed to meet its intended design when the product unexpectedly malfunctioned and exploded. (5) In this instance, the consumer-expectations standard will ordinarily hold the manufacturer liable because consumers have a rational assumption that their products will not explode. (6) Thus, the consumer-expectations standard is sufficient to impose strict liability when recognizable (sometimes indisputable) manufacturing defects in the production process cause serious or fatal injuries. (7) The Restatement (Second)'s drafters' primary intent related to these manufacturing defects. (8)

    Design-defect claims arise when a product conforms to the manufacturer's intended design, but a plaintiff challenges the manufacturer's entire product line. (9) For instance, a plaintiff fatally injured in a rollover accident who challenges Ford Motor Company may allege that every Bronco model on the market is defectively designed because such models are prone to rollovers. (10) The focus shifts to the manufacturer's conduct, including: compliance with federal regulations; design engineering choices to install certain components; the manufacturer's knowledge as to the dangerous condition; whether an alternative design was available on the market; whether that alternative design was cost effective; and several other "wide-ranging inquir[ies]" into the design process. (11) Whether the consumer-expectations standard is adequate to assess complex design considerations, such as a mechanical engineer's professional judgment in designing a product, is a seminal issue in American products liability law. Some legal commentators compare the issue to "product liability's version of the rule against perpetuities," describing consumer expectations as "a doctrine nearly universally reviled but stubbornly and inexplicably persistent." (12) Alabama is a jurisdiction that retains the "persistent" consumer-expectations doctrine for design defectiveness. However, Alabama's unique approach operates as the very risk-utility analysis it purportedly rejects. (13)

    Across the country, federal and state courts apply and interpret Alabama's products liability law, particularly the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine ("AEMLD"). (14) Considering the current developments in mass torts, multidistrict litigation, and court system technology, federal district courts increasingly apply the AEMLD to Alabama residents' claims. (15) In order to ensure consistent and uniform results, Alabama products liability law requires clarification. Specifically, Alabama lacks a clearly defined design-defect approach. Alabama should adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts' design-defect standard because it aligns with the AEMLD's fundamental fault-based approach.

    In Part II., this Note details Alabama's judicially created products liability law, which created a unique construction by resisting the Restatement (Second) of Torts [section] 402A's "strict" component of strict products liability. Part III. discusses the two design-defect standards--consumer-expectations and risk-utility--and their independent characteristics. Next, Part IV. explores the evolution of design-defect liability and a national trend mixing the two design-defect standards into one ill-defined test. This Note argues the consumer-expectations and risk-utility standards differ fundamentally and were never intended to be merged into one design-defect standard. Finally, Part V. discusses Alabama's mixed design-defect approach and contends its consumer-expectations component is inconsistent with Alabama's founding products liability doctrine: the AEMLD.

  2. ADOPTION OF THE ALABAMA EXTENDED MANUFACTURER'S LIABILITY DOCTRINE

    In the early 1900s, consumers were unable to seek redress for product-related injuries in tort. (16) In 1916, Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo's "landmark opinion" (17) eliminated manufacturer immunity by removing the common law's "privity rule," which prevented consumers from holding manufacturers liable due to a lack of a "direct contractual relationship." (18) In Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., another key historical decision, the New Jersey high court eliminated the privity requirement for implied warranty of merchantability claims against manufacturers. (19) Justice Traynor's decision, in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., (20) created the final push for strict liability, prompting the American Law Institute to construct the Restatement (Second) of Torts. (21)

    In 1965, the American Law Institute released [section] 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. (22) "No single doctrinal common law principle was ever adopted so widely and quickly in the United States as strict products liability." (23) "This undoubtedly reflected the consumer age, the high level of accidents involving consumer products, and the considerable inadequacies of warranty law." (24) Uniquely, "section 402A was not a 'restatement' of existing law. Rather, it reflected dissatisfaction with the existing state of the law that posed so many obstacles to establishing liability for dangerous products." (25) The Restatement (Second) of Torts [section] 402A was assembled as a "progressive reform." (26)

    Eleven years later, in 1976, the Alabama Supreme Court judicially created the AEMLD in both Casrell v. Altec Industries, Inc., and Atkins v. American Motors Corp. (27) Although Alabama recognized [section] 402A's "strict liability in tort ha[d] been accepted and applied in more than thirty states," the Alabama high court elected to take an independent approach. (28) Instead of adopting the Restatement (Second)'s strict product liability theory, Alabama adopted the AEMLD. (29) The AEMLD created a hybrid theory of strict liability. (30) While aligning closely the theories in the Restatement (Second) of Torts [section][section] 398 and 402A, the AEMLD is not a strict liability theory based upon social or economic justification. (31) The primary difference between the AEMLD and the Restatement (Second) is the AEMLD does not impose a no-fault or strict liability concept; instead, it adheres to the tort concept of fault. (32) The Supreme Court of Alabama retained the concept of fault in that "[t]he fault of the manufacturer, or retailer, is that he has conducted himself unreasonably in placing a product on the market which will cause harm when used according to its intended purpose." (33) The gravamen of the action is the manufacturer's fault in placing the product on the market when the product was unreasonably unsafe or in a dangerous condition when put to its intended use. (34)

    Following Casrell and Atkins, in 1981, the Alabama Supreme Court further articulated the AEMLD in Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Haven Hills Farm, Inc. (35) In Haven Hills Farm, a delivery truck driver was traveling from Mississippi back to Mobile, Alabama when his truck's left tire blew out and caused the truck to roll. (36) The truck driver's company brought suit under the AEMLD, alleging Sears sold the tire in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition. (37) The jury returned a verdict for the company. (38) On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed because the truck driver's company failed to meet its burden of proving a defect. (39) The court emphasized that, under the AEMLD, it was not enough to show the product failed to perform when applied to its intended use; the product must also have been sold in a defective condition. (40) In short, Alabama rejected the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur and placed an affirmative obligation on the plaintiff to prove the defect. (41)

    Following the AEMLD's creation, a trend emerged in the federal courts to "merge" products liability, negligence, and warranty claims into the AEMLD. (42) However, in 2003, the Alabama Supreme Court expressly overruled the merger doctrine trend. (43) Today, negligence and warranty claims are distinct, not merged, under the AEMLD. (44) Although negligence, wantonness, and breach of warranty claims are integral to a plaintiff's product liability action, this Note is exclusively limited to analyzing design defects.

  3. TWO INDEPENDENT THEORIES OF DESIGN LIABILITY

    The Restatement (Second)'s consumer-expectations approach and the Restatement (Third)'s risk-utility analysis were never intended to be merged; (45) the two approaches exist independently because their underlying fundamentals are distinct. (46) The reasonable expectations of the ordinary consumer is a contract-law concept, specifically a warranty-law concept. (47) Riskutility is a negligence standard sounding in tort. (48) Dean William L. Prosser, one of [section] 402A's drafters, explained it was "clear that the standard for both design and failure-to-warn defects sounds in classic negligence." (49) Other products-liability scholars suggest "Section 402A was not written with design defects in mind." (50) According to Professor George Priest, the "founders" of strict products liability did not contemplate liability for design defects in their proposals. (51) However, other prominent scholars suggest the drafters contemplated design defectiveness, particularly in [section]...

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