By Robert B. Barnett Jr., J.D.
Where a jury found that Goodyear was not liable for defectively designing a heating hose, any error in a jury instruction was harmless because the subject of the instruction would not come into play unless and until Goodyear were found at fault for defective design, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In addition, a Colorado law imposing a rebuttable presumption that a product was not defective once it has been on the market for 10 years did not contain an inference that the 10-year limit did not apply to products that had a useful safe life of more than 10 years (Helmer v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., July 12, 2016, Lucero, C.).
Representatives of a class of homeowners sued Goodyear in federal court in Colorado for defectively designing a radiant-heating hose that leaked, causing damage to their homes. According to the homeowners, the hose failed for the homeowners after about 15-20 years. All parties agreed that the hose was supposed to have a useful safe life of more than 40 years. Goodyear’s attempt to challenging the district court’s order certifying the class (see Products Liability Law Daily’s March 25, 2014 analysis) failed (see Products Liability Law Daily’s May 9, 2014 analysis).
Goodyear’s defense was that the fault laid not in the design but in the installation by Chiles Power Supply Company d/b/a Heatway Radiant Floors and Snowmelting, with whom Goodyear had an exclusive contract between 1992 and 1996 to manufacture the hose. Goodyear contended that Heatway violated a promise to oversee all hose installations, a promise that it violated when it farmed out the installation work to a third party without any oversight. Goodyear stopped making the hose in 1996. By the time the lawsuit arose, Heatway had gone out of business.
At trial, the jury returned a verdict for Goodyear, finding that the hose was not defectively designed. The homeowners appealed, alleging two errors. First, they argued that the court erred when it instructed the jury, if it found that Goodyear had defectively designed the hose, to apportion responsibility for fault between Goodyear for negligent design and Heatway for negligent installation. Second, they argued that the court erred when it instructed the jury on Colorado’s presumption that a product that had been on the market for at least 10 years was safe because the presumption should not apply to a product whose supposed useful life exceeded the 10 years.
Jury instruction. Colorado permits defendants to designate a nonparty as the party at fault, which Goodyear did when it alleged that the leaking was caused by Heatway’s negligent installation. The jury instruction told the jury to apportion liability between Goodyear and Heatway if it found that Goodyear defectively designed the hose. Because the jury found no defective design, it never engaged in any apportionment. As a result, even if the jury instruction were improper, the error was harmless because the jury never reached the question of apportionment. Similarly, the Tenth Circuit rejected the homeowners’ argument that, even if the jury did not apportion damages, the instruction confused the jury. Juries are presumed to understand and follow instructions.
10-year presumption. The Colorado statute setting forth the 10-year rebuttable presumption had to be given its intended meaning. If the statute did not apply to products with a useful life beyond 10 years, the statute would have stated the exception in the text. On a similar note, the exception could not be inferred from the statute. The legislators understood the implications when they passed the law. In fact, the statute’s final version was drafted as a rebuttable presumption rather than a statute of repose precisely because the legislators were concerned that the 10 years would lapse before a product’s useful safe life had expired. The court, therefore, was correct in instructing the jury on the 10-year presumption.
As a result, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.
The case is No. 15-1214.
Attorneys: William Harold Anderson (Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca LLP) for David Helmer. Lawrence Michael Brooks, Jr. (Wells Anderson & Race, LLC) for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
Companies: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
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