By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.
A ruling that the Ford Motor Company had been negligent as to the asbestos-exposure injuries of an automobile mechanic’s wife was vacated by a Tennessee appellate panel upon finding that the jury instructions and verdict failed to address the "threshold" issue of whether Ford’s brake products were unreasonably dangerous or defective (Stockton v. Ford Motor Co., May 12, 2017, Armstrong, K.).
The husband of the injured individual worked as an automobile mechanic in the 1970s and opened his own shop in 1980. His wife cleaned the shop twice a week and laundered her husband’s clothes, both of which exposed her to asbestos dust from brake linings and pads. Ford Motor Company and all automotive manufacturers had used chrysotile asbestos in their products in the mid-to-late 20th century, and the auto mechanic had worked on vehicles manufactured by Ford. In 2011, the wife was diagnosed with mesothelioma and filed a lawsuit against 61 companies, alleging that the exposure to the asbestos in their products caused her illness.
Case against Ford Motor Co. In their case against Ford, the wife and her husband alleged that Ford was strictly liable for the injuries resulting from the wife’s exposure to Ford’s asbestos-containing products, that Ford negligently designed its products, and that Ford was negligent when it failed to provide an adequate warning about the asbestos defect in its products. Ford argued that the husband had the duty to warn—not Ford—because the husband was the employer and had undergone training on the hazards of asbestos exposure. Ford also asserted that many of the shop’s manuals contained explicit warnings about the asbestos in brake parts, but that the husband took no measure to inform or protect against exposure.
The case went to a jury, which found that Ford was negligent "in failing to adequately warn [the plaintiff]" and that its negligence was the cause of the wife’s injuries. The jury assigned Ford 71 percent of the fault for the injuries and the remaining 29 percent was assigned to another manufacturer. The jury awarded a total of over $4.5 million in compensatory, loss of consortium, and punitive damages. Ford filed the present appeal.
Jury instructions. The trial court erred when it denied the jury instructions proposed by Ford. The lower court instructed the jury that:
A plaintiff is entitled to recover compensation for an injury that was legally caused by the negligent conduct of a defendant. And in this case the plaintiff has the burden of proving, number one, the defendant was negligent; number two that the negligence was a legal cause of injury to the plaintiff.
Ford had proposed a modified version of Tennessee Civil Pattern Jury Instruction 3.01:
A plaintiff is entitled to recover compensation for an injury that was legally caused by the negligent conduct of a defendant. In this case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving:
- That Ford was negligent in failing to warn Mrs. Stockton of the dangers associated with dust from chrysotile in Ford brakes and clutches;
- That Ford’s brakes and clutches were defective or unreasonably dangerous by failing to warn of the dangers associated with dust from chrysotile in Ford brakes and clutches; and
- That the negligence was a cause in fact and legal cause of injury to plaintiff.
Because the instruction given to the jury did not require the jury to make an initial finding of an unreasonably dangerous or defective product, which is "a threshold to recovery" under Tennessee law, it was incorrect.
Jury verdict. Similarly, the trial court erred when it ruled that Ford was liable for negligence because the jury’s verdict had been inconsistent. The jury verdict form provided to the jurors contained three questions: (1) did the plaintiffs prove that Ford was negligent in failing to warn the plaintiff and that this negligence was the cause of the injuries; (2) did the plaintiffs prove that Ford was negligent in the design of its products and that this negligence was a cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; and (3) did the plaintiffs prove that Ford’s products were defective or unreasonably dangerous when they left Ford’s control and caused the plaintiff’s injuries? The jury only answered the first question, finding Ford liable. The form also instructed:
If you answered "Yes" to either Question 1, 2, or 3, continue on to Question 4. If you answered "No" to Questions 1, 2, and 3, please sign and date the verdict form; you do not need to answer the remaining Questions.
The appellate court noted that the jury did not return a verdict on the "threshold criterion" of whether Ford’s products were unreasonably dangerous or defective, and a review of the record indicated that the jury was confused by the form and was unable to reach a consensus. Because the dangerous/defective issue was not included in the first question to the jury, the jury’s finding of liability was negated. According to Tennessee law, when a jury verdict is inconsistent, it is "no verdict at all." Thus, the judgment was vacated and remanded.
Foreseeability, duty, and causation. The appellate court also observed that the jury did not consider whether the wife’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable, stating that the trial court "conflate[d] the prima facie elements of duty, breach, and causation into a single inquiry, and overlook[ed] the jury’s role in the question of foreseeability as it relates to breach and causation[.]" The appellate court thoroughly considered the Tennessee Supreme Court opinion in Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co. 266 S.W.3d 347 (Tenn. 2008), but concluded that the state high court did not draw a "clear line as to when the determinations of foreseeability should fall to the judge and when it should fall to the jury." Informed by the Satterfield ruling, which partially adopted the Restatement (Third) of Torts, the appellate court held that the question of foreseeability in the case at bar should be for the jury and should be presented to the jury along with the question of whether Ford’s product was unreasonably dangerous or defective. The appellate court added that "[o]nly if the jury answers affirmatively to both of these questions should it be allowed to continue to the question of whether Ford breached its duty to [the wife] and, if so, whether that breach was a cause of her injuries."
Dissent. Justice Stafford penned a partial dissent, disagreeing with the majority’s analysis on the issue of the duty owed by Ford. Justice Stafford explained that the state high court had adopted intricate rules for a reviewing court—not the factfinder—to apply in order to resolve the issue of duty. Because the majority relied more on the Satterfield dissent than on the state high court’s opinion, it mischaracterized Satterfield and its ruling "does not reflect current Tennessee law."
This case is No. W2016-01175-COA-R3-CV.
Attorneys: Robert Shuttlesworth (Shrader & Associates LLP) for Joyce Stockton. Stephen A. Marcum (O'Melveny & Myers LLP) for Ford Motor Co.
Companies: Ford Motor Co.
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