Products Liability Law Daily Judgment in favor of manufacturer of Buckeyball magnets upheld
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Thursday, October 8, 2020

Judgment in favor of manufacturer of Buckeyball magnets upheld

By David Yucht, J.D.

In 2014, the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted a mandatory safety standard for magnets that effectively banned the sale of "Buckyballs" and other rare-earth magnets.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has determined that a federal trial court in Mississippi did not err in excluding post-sale evidence or in refusing a request to instruct the jury that federal standards for toy magnets preempted state law in a design defect lawsuit brought by the parents of a small child who was seriously injured in 2011 when he swallowed "Buckyball" magnets. Consequently, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s denial of motions for a new trial and for relief from judgment in favor of the manufacturer (Jordan v. Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, L.L.C., October 7, 2020, Stewart, C.).

Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, L.L.C. (M&O) manufactured "Buckyball" magnets—small, rare-earth magnets that can be manipulated into various shapes. In 2010, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled Buckyball magnets to clarify the magnets’ labels. The CPSC adopted a standard, which imposed strength limits on magnets for children under age 14. Magnets for children under age 14 were prohibited from exceeding 50 Gauss (a measurement of magnetic induction). After the recall, M&O worked with the CPSC to change Buckyball labels to indicate that the magnets were not intended for children of any age. The new label appeared on Buckyball magnets in 2011 and warned that they were to be kept away from all children and could cause serious injury if swallowed or inhaled. In 2014, the CPSC adopted a mandatory safety standard for magnets that effectively banned the sale of Buckyballs and other rare-earth magnets. In March 2011, a husband and wife, who are Mississippi residents, purchased a set of Buckyballs. Subsequently, their toddler became sick and was hospitalized. An x-ray revealed that he had swallowed eight Buckyballs, damaging his stomach and intestines.

The parents sued M&O under Mississippi state law, for claims including product liability for defective design. Prior to trial, the judge issued an order barring evidence of the 2014 CPSC action and other post-sale evidence. The judge also refused the parents’ mid-trial request to instruct the jury that the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act partially preempted state law in that the jury could render a verdict for the parents if it concluded that Buckyball magnets exceeded the 50 Gauss limit adopted by the CPSC. The jury returned a verdict in favor of M&O. The parents appealed the trial court’s denial of their motions for a new trial and for relief from final judgment.

Post-injury evidence. The Fifth Circuit held that the trial court did not commit prejudicial error by excluding post-sale evidence, such as the 2014 ban on Buckyballs, at trial. The parents asserted that this constituted prejudicial error because the rulings prevented them from fully presenting their case and cross-examining M&O’s witnesses. A central issue at trial was whether Buckyballs were children’s toys or adult products. M&O’s witnesses testified that the CPSC determined that Buckyball magnets were adult products which subjected them to less rigorous safety standards. The parents’ evidence that was excluded by the trial court showed that in 2012, the CPSC began regulating Buckyball magnets as children’s toys, subjecting the product to the heightened safety requirements. Although the parents argued that the trial court’s ruling deprived them of vital evidence, Mississippi law requires consumers to prove defect based on what the manufacturer knew at the time the product was sold. Consequently, M&O’s conduct only could be evaluated through March 2011, the date the Buckyballs in this case were purchased.

Post-injury evidence—bias. In addition, the Fifth Circuit refused to find that the district court erred in denying the parents’ motion to set aside the final judgment because the judgment was obtained through M&O’s alleged misrepresentations. They argued that the trial court’s exclusion of the post-sale evidence allowed M&O to misrepresent the facts, thereby leaving them unable to rebut M&O’s case. To obtain a reversal here, the parents needed to show that a misrepresentation prevented them from fully and fairly presenting their case. The parents had possession of evidence showing a possible bias on the part of M&O’s expert witness. However, this evidence came from post-2011 statements. Although the court had ruled these statements inadmissible as substantive evidence, court rules allowed the parents to proffer this evidence to the judge if they wished to use it on cross-examination. Here, the parents failed to proffer this evidence to the trial judge, so the court was unable to rule on the evidence’s admissibility. Consequently, the appellate court could not review the exclusion of this evidence.

Jury instructions—procedure. The appellate court also refused to find that the district court improperly denied the parents’ request for a jury instruction concerning the CPSC requirement that Buckyball magnets not exceed 50 Gauss. In the middle of the trial, the parents sought an instruction that this federal standard preempted state law on the defect element of their claim. It would have been prejudicial to M&O if the trial court allowed this instruction at the time it was requested. M&O’s trial strategy centered on rebutting the parents’ state law claim, and M&O did not conduct discovery on the preemption issue. The parents knew or should have known about the federal magnet standard and the preemption argument at the time of the original pretrial conference. Because the parents did not mention this claim at the pretrial conference, there was no injustice when the district court denied their belated request for a jury instruction.

The case is No. 19-60364.

Attorneys: Carl Victor Welsh (Pittman, Roberts & Welsh, PLLC) for Meaghin Jordan. Lewis William Bell (Watkins & Eager, PLLC) for Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, L.L.C.

Companies: Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, L.L.C

MainStory: TopStory EvidentiaryNews DesignManufacturingNews DefensesLiabilityNews PreemptionNews ChildrensProductsNews HouseholdProductsNews LouisianaNews MississippiNews TexasNews

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