High Court Denies Defendant Motion to Dismiss Products Liability Action

A New York products liability action must allege one or more of the three following theories: (a) the product was defective due to some error in the manufacturing/assembly process; (b) the product was defectively designed; and/or (c) the producer of the product failed to provide adequate warnings.

Plaintiff alleged he was injured while using a form of lye to clear a clogged floor drain in a Manhattan restaurant. Immediately after he poured a lye-water mixture into the drain, some of the product splashed back in his face, causing him to lose sight in one eye. Plaintiff does not understand English and thus, could not read the instructions for use of the lye.  [1]  The lower court dismissed the failure to warn theory and that issue was not brought up on appeal.

With regard to plaintiff’s design defect case, the court ruled that a “defectively designed product is one which, at the time it leaves the seller's hands, is in a condition not reasonably contemplated by the ultimate consumer and is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use.” [2]  In order for the defendant to win on summary judgment, the defendant must demonstrate that its product is reasonably safe for its intended use; that is, the “utility” of the product outweighs its inherent danger. The trial court and mid-level court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. However, New York’s highest court overturned and found that defendant failed to make a showing that utility of the lye outweighed its inherent danger.

The court also ruled that plaintiff’s apparent misuse of the product in violation of its instructions did not warrant a dismissal. In order to obtain a dismissal based on “misuse,” defendant must show that plaintiff’s misuse is the sole cause of plaintiff’s injuries. In the present case, the court ruled that a jury could determine that the lye was so inherently dangerous it never should have been sold – and thus the plaintiff’s misuse was not the only cause of his injuries.

Bottom Line: A subrogation case alleging products liability must be supported by expert proof that the product was “defective.” To win a design defect case based on a theory that the product was “dangerous,” the subrogating carrier must show that the product’s “inherent danger” outweighed its “utility” (i.e., usefulness).

[1] The instructions advised that the user wear goggles and advised the user to use a spoon to put the lye into the drain (and not pour lye directly into the drain)
[2] Chow v. Reckitt & Colman, Inc., Court of Appeals No. 81 (May 20, 2011)

Black Sheep Web Design set this site apart from the flock