Products Liability Law Daily Application of comparative negligence doctrine to strict products liability claims upheld by Georgia high court
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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Application of comparative negligence doctrine to strict products liability claims upheld by Georgia high court

By Joshua Frumkin, J.D.

The statute at issue broadly governs all actions for injuries to persons, irrespective of the theory upon which the claims are based.

In a case arising from a defective brake cylinder in a Suzuki motorcycle, the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the Court of Appeals' holding that the trial court properly reduced an award of damages on comparative negligence grounds. Specifically, the state high court affirmed that the comparative negligence provisions of the Georgia Code apply even to strict products liability claims (Johns v. Suzuki Motor of America, Inc., October 19, 2020, Nahmias, D.).

A consumer was seriously injured in August 2013 when the front brake of his Suzuki motorcycle suddenly failed. He brought suit against Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. and its parent company, Suzuki Motor Corporation (collectively, Suzuki), for strict products liability based on design defect and two negligence claims. His wife also brought suit for loss of consortium. The consumer produced evidence that the brake failure was caused by a design defect in the front master brake cylinder. He also admitted to not regularly changing the brake fluid as instructed in the owner's manual. Suzuki had notice of the defect for some time before the consumer's accident, but only issued a recall notice afterwards.

The jury found for the consumer on all claims and awarded $12.5 million in compensatory damages; this was reduced to $6.375 million based on the jury's determination that the consumer was 49 percent at fault. The consumer requested pre-judgment interest, but the trial court refused because his recovery after the apportionment of fault was less than his pretrial demand of $10 million. The consumer appealed and argued that the lower court erred in reducing the damages award and, thus, also erred in denying him pre-judgment interest. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling [see Products Liability Law Daily’s July 10, 2019 analysis]. The Supreme Court of Georgia granted certiorari to specifically rule on whether OCGA Section 51-12-33(a) ("the comparative negligence provision") applies to strict products liability cases.

The statute is broadly applied. At the core of the matter, the state high court determined that the statute as written does apply to strict products liability claims. The court had previously stated that Section 51-12-33 subsections (a) and (g) together "codify the doctrine of comparative negligence" under Georgia law. Subsection (a) states that, in an action for injury to persons or property where the injured party is "to some degree responsible for the injury," the trier of fact "shall determine the percentage of fault" and reduce the damages awarded in proportion to that fault. Here, the consumer argued that the statute does not apply to strict products liability cases because the text does not specifically mention "strict products liability." However, a plain reading of the statute showed that it broadly governs all actions for injuries to persons irrespective of the theory of the action, the court opined. As such, the court determined that the instant strict products liability claim, like all strict products liability claims under Georgia law, fell within the statute.

Prior state precedent did not apply. The consumer contended that under prior Georgia precedent, principles of comparative negligence do not apply to cases of strict products liability. The court disagreed, pointing out that the plethora of cases on which the consumer relied predated the 2005 enactment of the statute at issue. Statutes can supplant common law court rulings, and this court previously held that the broad language of the comparative negligence provision indicated legislative intent to do so.

The consumer also attempted to rely on numerous other prior cases to support his appeal, which the court distinguished in turn. For example, the consumer gave an overbroad reading of the state high court’s decision in Zaldivar v. Prockett, confusing the court's general statement about the comparative negligence provision as an all-inclusive rule, and misread the Court of Appeals' restatement of an agreement between the parties in Patterson v. Long, which this court held was unpersuasive dicta.

Comparative negligence does not completely eliminate strict products liability. The consumer argued that the Court of Appeals’ decision to apply comparative negligence to strict products liability cases would effectively eliminate strict products liability, but the state supreme court dismissed that idea. The court noted a strong difference between: (1) proving the manufacturer's negligence, which a party bringing strict products liability claims does not have to do; and (2) considering the degree to which an injured person was responsible for his or her own misfortune, which a comparative negligence analysis does. The court pointed to the fact that the doctrine of "comparative negligence" should really be called "comparative fault," as it lacks the first element of all negligence claims (i.e., the duty of care). The court pointed to multiple decades of nationwide judicial analysis in which different types of fault were weighed against one another, in spite of the difficulty that task can pose.

Consumer's public policy argument did not succeed. The consumer also argued that limiting a manufacturer's liability on comparative negligence grounds would undermine the public policy behind the doctrine of strict products liability—namely, protecting consumers from unscrupulous manufacturers pushing dangerous products onto an unknowing public. The court briefly explored the long standing policy debate about this very issue: while protecting consumers from defective products is so important that many believe it justifies strict liability, others contend that it would be unfair to completely excuse a consumer's own negligence if an injury might have resulted from his or her own actions. The court ultimately determined that the Georgia legislature contemplated this debate when it enacted the provision in question, and found that the consumer's argument here was unavailing.

The case is No. S19G1478.

Attorneys: Jennifer Kathleen Coalson (Parks, Chesin & Walbert, P.C.) for Adrian Johns. Chilton D. Varner (King & Spalding LLP) for Suzuki Motor of America, Inc.

Companies: Suzuki Motor of America, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews DefensesLiabilityNews DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews GeorgiaNews

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