The following post is part of our Law Student Blog Writing Project, and is authored by Mark Ashley Hatfield, a Juris Doctor student at the University of Kentucky College of Law.
It is hard to deny that our lives would be much more difficult without vehicles. Our commute to work, our trips to the grocery store, and every task in between would become incredibly more difficult. Fortunately for us, we live in a world that provides us with safe, fast, and efficient transportation, so those everyday tasks are accomplished much more easily than they would be without a motor vehicle. But what happens when our transportation fails to live up to our expectations?
Imagine that you are involved in a crash and the protection you expected to receive from your automobile does not withstand the impact of the crash? Even worse, imagine that part of your car malfunctions in a way that increases the harm suffered by you and those in your vehicle. What happens then? Unfortunately, Ross and Brenda Linert had to deal with this type of experience. When they took the car manufacturer to court, they were unsuccessful in obtaining relief.
Why Did Ohio’s Courts Discuss an Automobile Manufacturer’s Duty to Warn?
In November of 2007, Ross Linert, a long-time police officer, was traveling at approximately 35 miles per hour (the posted speed limit) while on patrol in his department-issued 2005 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (CVPI), manufactured by Ford, when he was struck from behind. The car that struck Mr. Linert, a Cadillac Deville, was being driven by a drunk driver and was traveling at speeds estimated between 90 and 110 miles per hour. Mr. Linert suffered severe, painful burns to nearly a third of his body, and is now disabled.
Mr. Linert and his wife, Brenda, initially filed suit against the drunk driver of the Cadillac Deville, but when that defendant asserted that Ford’s flawed product caused Mr. Linert’s severe injuries, the Linerts amended their complaint to add claims against Ford. The Linerts ultimately dismissed their claims against the drunk driver on the day of trial, so the key complaint at issue here is the Linerts’ failure-to-warn claim stating that, “if Ford had warned customers of risks associated with the placement of the vehicle’s fuel tank and the lack of a fire-suppression system, [Mr. Linert] would have survived his accident with minor injuries.”
Ohio law, as does the law in most states, speaks directly to the issue of a manufacturer’s duty to warn consumers of potential dangers posed by their products. In Ohio, unless the danger posed is generally known and recognizable by a consumer, manufacturers have the “duty to warn of dangers known to the manufacturer at the time of sale of the product” and “a duty to warn of dangers that were not obvious at the time of sale but became known to the manufacturer after the product was sold to a consumer.” These duties are codified under Ohio law, and the second one speaks specifically to the post-market duty to warn argument that the Linerts vehemently put forth. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, the Linerts ultimately lost this legal battle. The procedural background of the case is best summed up in the following paragraph.
The trial court ruled in favor of Ford and in so doing, went against the wishes of the Linerts by not instructing the jury to consider Ford’s post-market duty to warn. On appeal, the appellate court sided with the Linerts by focusing on the Linerts’ contentions that such an instruction was necessary “so that the jury would not ignore Ford’s post-marketing duty of the risk of fire in the CVPI and that a reasonable manufacturer would have given a warning of that risk to consumers, including to the police community.” The primary reason the appellate court ruled this was based on the abundance of evidence that had been introduced by the Linerts but seemingly ignored by the trial court. The Linerts had presented evidence that suggested Ford knew of several accidents similar to Mr. Linerts’ accident that were made worse by the poor placement of the CVPI’s fuel tank; that Ford knew of the risk of fires because of the defective designs, and; that Ford had taken on projects to improve their product. Still, in light of all of this, Ford gave no warning to consumers. This evidence caused the appellate court to reverse the trial court’s ruling and hold that the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on this claim was a clear error. Basically meaning the jury should have been presented with this question of a post-market duty to warn, and should have been allowed to consider the evidence to analyze whether or not Ford was justified in failing to warn its consumers of the potential dangers.
Why Did the Ohio Supreme Court Allow Ford to Avoid Warning Consumers about Defects in Its Cars?
Outside of the lone dissenting opinion, the Supreme Court of Ohio did not share the same view as the appellate court. Instead, the Supreme Court looked to a different statute in Ohio Law (R.C. 2307.76) and determined that the Linerts’ failed to meet their burden of establishing this claim and the trial court was correct to not instruct the jury on the post-market duty to warn claim. Ford argued, and the Supreme Court sided with the notion that under this statute, “a ‘risk’ that triggers a post-marketing duty to warn is not merely any “known danger,” but it must be a risk about which a reasonable manufacturer would warn in light of the likelihood and likely seriousness of the harm.” Additionally, “a product manufacturer’s implementation of a post-marketing product improvement does not trigger a post-marketing duty to warn.”
The Supreme Court used this argument to frame its analysis and held that the Linerts’ claims failed for two, somewhat muddled, reasons. First, the Court essentially stated that their claim failed because Ford knew of the dangers prior to the sale of the product so the post-market failure to warn claim is inapplicable because the focus must be on the knowledge a manufacturer acquires after the sale of the product. Although Ford did receive information post-sale, the Court ruled that its extensive knowledge of the dangers pre-sale was addressed and rejected by the jury in the original failure to warn at the time of sale claim. Second, the Linerts’ claim failed because, while they succeeded in establishing a known “risk,” they failed to establish the likelihood of the risk. Essentially meaning that there would have been no way for a jury to determine if a reasonable manufacturer in the same situation would have warned consumers of the potential danger.
While the majority opinion governs the law in this area, there were two Judges who dissented and would favor the Linerts’ claim for an instruction on the post-market duty to warn. The dissenting opinion believed the evidence to be substantial enough to warrant the instruction for jury consideration and perhaps many readers reviewing the case would feel the same way; I certainly did. Still, the majority, in what reads as a hair-splitting approach, decided that the evidence was not sufficient enough to warrant such an instruction, and Ford was ultimately relieved of having to provide any type of warning to its consumers in this case even though there were known dangers present.
Product liability cases like Linert v. Ford are difficult and require extensive legal experience. If you believe you have a products liability claim related to an automobile accident, please call one of our attorneys for a free consultation. Lawrence & Associates is Working Hard for the Working Class, and we want to help you!