Inappropriate Jury Charge in Product Liability Case Results in Tossing of $10 Million Jury Verdict

In Reis v. Volvo Cars of N. Am., decided July 1, 2014, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erroneously charged the jury in a design defect case, requiring reversal and a new trial.

Here are the facts of this product liability case:

On May 24, 2002, plaintiff’s friend, Americo Silva, was showing plaintiff a 1987 Volvo station wagon that Silva had recently bought. The car had a manual transmission. As the two stood in front of the car, looking under the hood, Silva asked plaintiff if he would like to see the engine running. Plaintiff said he would, and Silva walked to the driver’s side door, leaned into the car and turned the key in the ignition. The car lurched forward, pinning plaintiff against a wall and causing him to lose his left leg.

Plaintiff sued Volvo, the car’s manufacturer, presenting evidence that “when the car was manufactured, it was well known in the automobile industry that a manual transmission car could, if left in a forward gear when it was parked, lurch as this one did when the engine was turned on” and asserting that “Volvo should have equipped the car with a “starter interlock,” which would have made it impossible to start the engine while the car was in gear, or at least should have warned users of the car about the danger.”

The trial court charged the jury with Pattern Jury Instructions 2:15 and 2:16. The 2:15 charge was:

A manufacturer like Volvo that has special training and experience in designing and manufacturing automobiles, when acting in that capacity, has a duty to use the same degree of skill and care that others in the business of manufacturing and selling automobiles in the United States would reasonably use in the same situation.

Volvo has special skills in designing and manufacturing automobiles. If you decide that Volvo did use the same degree of skill and care that other manufacturers selling automobiles in the United States would reasonably use in the same situation, then you must find that Volvo was not negligent, no matter what resulted from defendant’s conduct.

On the other hand, if you decide that Volvo did not use the same degree of skill and care, then you must find that Volvo was negligent.

The jury answered “yes” to the question of whether Volvo was negligent in omitting the interlock, but “no” to the question of whether the product was “not reasonably safe” and thus “defective” without the device. It also found for plaintiff on his failure to warn claims. The jury awarded plaintiff approximately $10 million in damages.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court committed reversible error in charging the jury with the “community” standard of care in PJI 2:15:

PJI 2:15 is reserved for malpractice cases because the standards of care applicable to malpractice cases and to other negligence cases are different. In a malpractice case against, for example, a doctor or a lawyer, the defendant is generally held to the level of skill and care used by others in the community who practice the same profession[.] [Citations omitted]. In negligence cases generally, by contrast, the jury must compare the defendant’s conduct to that of a reasonable person under like circumstances [citations omitted]. In negligent design/design defect cases, the reasonable-person standard has been given more specific form: the question is whether the product is one as to which ‘if the design defect were known at the time of manufacture, a reasonable person would conclude that the utility of the product did not outweigh the risk inherent in marketing a product designed in that manner’ [citation omitted].

The difference between the “community” and “reasonable person” standards is a subtle one, and in some cases an error like the one that the trial court committed here might not require reversal. So long as the charge as a whole adequately explains general negligence principles, a reviewing court may feel confident in concluding that an isolated mistake in referring to the skill and care of others in the field did not affect the jury’s verdict. But here, we have no such confidence. The verdict was, as we have said, inconsistent: The jury found for plaintiff on the negligent design claim and for Volvo on the design defect claim, though the claims were in substance identical. And it did so after hearing extensive evidence about the practices of other manufacturers, and after hearing a charge that said, erroneously, “If you decide that Volvo did not use the same degree of skill and care [as other manufacturers selling automobiles in the United States], then you must find that Volvo was negligent” (emphasis added). Thus while Volvo may not complain of the inconsistency in the verdict, because it failed to object to it before the jury was discharged [citation omitted], that inconsistency leads us to believe that the error in the charge — to which Volvo did make a timely objection — may have confused the jury.

Although the error in charging the jury with PJI 2:15 required reversal, the court held that the trial court properly charged the jury with PJI 2:16, titled “Common Law Standard of Care – Customary Business Practices”:

[PJI 2:16] differs from PJI 2:15 in the amount of leeway it gives the jury. PJI 2:15, as given here, told the jurors flatly that “Volvo has special skills in designing and manufacturing automobiles,” and said that if Volvo failed to meet community standards the jury “must find that Volvo was negligent.” But PJI 2:16 told the jury that it should “decide from the evidence . . . whether there was a general custom or practice,” and that if it found there was it “may take that general custom or practice into account” (emphasis added). While the issue of custom and practice was disputed here, there was evidence from which the jury could find that a large majority of the 1987 manual transmission cars sold in the United States had starter interlocks. This was enough to permit a finding of custom and practice, though not to require it.