Products Liability Law Daily Jury instructions concerning tractor manufacturer's state-of-the-art defense upheld
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Jury instructions concerning tractor manufacturer's state-of-the-art defense upheld

By Joshua Frumkin, Esq.

Other issues raised in the case were inconsequential in light of that successful defense.

In an appeal concerning a fatal rollover tractor accident, a New Jersey appellate panel held that the trial court's jury instructions were not flawed. Additionally, the panel held that the 40-year-old tractor was not deficiently designed, as the modern safety features that it lacked were not feasible when it was manufactured in 1975 (Confessore v. AGCO Corp., November 16, 2020, Sabatino, J.).

In May 2013, a man was killed when the tractor he was using to remove fallen trees in an orchard flipped over. The tractor was manufactured in 1975 by Massey Ferguson and was purchased by the orchard in 1976. In 1994, AGCO Corporation acquired Massey Ferguson and assumed its liabilities as the successor-in-interest. The tractor was sold as a "low profile" tractor suitable for work in orchards. The tractor did not have a rollover protective system (ROPS). The man's widow sued AGCO and argued that the tractor was defectively designed because it did not have a ROPS. AGCO argued that, inter alia, there was no feasible ROPS design for a low-profile tractor when it was sold in 1975. At trial, the jury was provided with a verdict form along with instructions to cease deliberations if the first question was answered in the affirmative. The first question addressed AGCO's state-of-the-art defense and asked, in brief, if the manufacturer had proven that there were no practical and technically feasible alternative designs at the time of sale that would have prevented the decedent's injury. The jury answered in the affirmative and found that the manufacturer had met its burden of proof on its state-of-the-art defense. The widow duly appealed. On appeal, she challenged the jury instructions as flawed in numerous ways.

State-of-the-art defense and jury instruction were appropriate. The court rejected the widow's argument that the trial court erred in permitting the manufacturer to make its state-of-the-art defense. New Jersey law has established an absolute defense to design defect liability claims based on how "state-of-the-art" the product was at the time of its sale. A product is considered "state-of-the-art" if it is the safest product of its type that the industry could define at the time of its manufacture. At trial, the manufacturer bore the burden to establish the lack of both a practical and technically feasible alternative to that design. The widow had the burden to show that the danger could have been feasibly eliminated with an alternative design without impacting the product's use. The widow argued that a fixed ROPS was available as early as 1968 and was sold by AGCO as optional equipment on standard tractors by 1975, which would render a tractor without one not "state-of-the-art." The court rejected this argument because it presupposed that the tractor was a "standard" model and not, as defense experts on both sides asserted, a "low profile" one. The widow did not dispute that low-profile tractors did not require a fixed ROPS at the time the instant model was sold. Consequently, the court found that the defendant rightfully asserted a state-of-the-art defense and that the trial court correctly instructed the jury on it.

Trial court did not err by refusing requested interrogatory. The widow argued that the trial court committed reversible error by failing to include a specific jury interrogatory on whether the tractor at issue was a standard or low-profile model. The appellate panel disagreed. Special interrogatories on verdict forms are used to direct the jury's attention to essential issues of a case and to clarify the meaning of the verdict. Trial courts have substantial discretion in both including and in wording special interrogatories on verdict forms. Flawed verdict interrogatories are grounds for reversal if they are misleading, confusing, or ambiguous. The appellate court determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to include the widow's requested interrogatory on the jury form. This was because the categories of "standard" and "low profile" are not binary and are based on multiple factors, as explained by the expert witnesses. The court opined that the jury would have been unable to answer the widow's binary yes-or-no question.

Court rejected assertion that foldable ROPS was feasible in 1975. The court denied the widow's argument that it was a design defect for the manufacturer not to include some type of foldable ROPS with the tractor, which would have negated the manufacturer's state-of-the-art defense. The record demonstrated that such a foldable ROPS was neither practical nor technically feasible in 1975, when the tractor at issue was sold. Furthermore, expert testimony indicated that a foldable ROPS would have presented significant risks to the user of the machine. As such, the court rejected the widow's contention here.

Trial court did not err in issuing state-of-the-art instruction. The panel rejected the widow's argument that the trial court erred in giving the state-of-the-art jury instruction because the manufacturer allegedly challenged only the practicality, and not the technical feasibility, of a 1975 folding ROPS design. When determining whether a jury instruction was erroneous, the court must determine if the instruction as a whole was clearly capable of producing an unjust result. While multiple expert witnesses said that a foldable ROPS theoretically could have been built in 1975, those same experts testified that there was insufficient data at the time as to whether a functional and safe folding ROPS could have been built Further, the record showed that a contemporaneous OSHA committee also had determined that it was not feasible to require a ROPS on low-profile tractors. The court thus determined that the jury could have reasonably accepted the experts' caveats and explanations to conclude that a foldable ROPS was not yet technologically feasible in 1975. Consequently, the court found that the trial court's instruction and verdict form could not have produced an unjust result. Therefore, the court ruled that the trial court did not err by issuing the state-of-the-art jury instruction.

Trial court did not err in issuing instructions on both "risk utility" and "reasonably safer design." The widow contended that the trial court should have instructed the jury to consider only whether the tractor was of a "reasonably safe design," and not also the "risk utility" of the tractor's design. The court disagreed. New Jersey law specifies that a claim for design defect includes the consideration of both factors. The state supreme court has explained that courts must weigh the risk of not adopting an alternative design against the alternative's impact on the product's utility and functionality. Here, the experts debated whether a foldable ROPS was a reasonably safer alternative design and whether that design would have impaired the tractor's functionality. While the trial court could have issued only one charge, the appellate panel found that the overlap between those charges was not unduly prejudicial and, therefore, not an issue.

"Crashworthiness" not relevant. The court determined that the trial court did not err in refusing the widow's request to instruct the jury on the concept of "crashworthiness," i.e., the ability of a vehicle to protect its passengers from enhanced injuries during a crash. In New Jersey, strict liability is imposed on manufacturers for injuries sustained in a vehicle with a defect that did not cause the accident but exacerbated the injuries. The widow asserted that a ROPS would have minimized her late husband's fatal injuries, rendering the tractor "not crashworthy." While the court considered the Restatement (Third) of Torts, which specifically considered a rollover incident involving a tractor lacking a ROPS when articulating "crashworthiness," the court ultimately rejected the widow's argument. New Jersey’s high court requires trial courts to instruct juries on crashworthiness only in products liability cases involving automobiles and trucks, not tractors. Absent that direct proscription, this court found that the trial court did not err in denying the widow's request for a crashworthiness instruction. Ultimately, the court also found that a crashworthiness instruction would have been inconsequential because the jury ruled for AGCO on its state-of-the-art defense.

Court dispensed with widow's other evidentiary arguments. The widow made numerous arguments concerning the relevance and admissibility of various pieces of evidence, all of which the court dismissed on the grounds that the trial court did not abuse its broad discretion on those matters.

The case is No. A-0947-18T1.

Attorneys: Peter Chamas (Gill & Chamas, LLC) for Susan Confessore. Jacob Lehman (German, Gallagher &Murtagh P.C.) for AGCO Corp.

Companies: AGCO Corp.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews EvidentiaryNews ExpertEvidenceNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews NewJerseyNews

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