Products Liability: Criminal Misconduct

By on January 28, 2014 - Comments off

Collins v. Navistar (2013) 214 Cal.App.4th 1486, 155 Cal.Rptr.3d 137

A big rig truck driver who suffered severe brain damage when a 15-year-old boy intentionally threw a 2.5 lb. chunk of concrete through his windshield from the top of a levee, filed an action against the manufacturer of the truck. Asserting various products liability theories, the plaintiff alleged that the windshield of the truck was defective due to its inadequate resistance to penetration, and that the manufacturer had a duty to design its trucks to withstand common road debris, including even intentionally thrown rocks and concrete chunks.

Following a jury verdict in favor of the manufacturer the plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court had erred in giving jury instructions and a verdict form which required a heightened standard of foreseeability due to the criminal nature of the boy’s actions in throwing the concrete. The court of appeal reversed, holding that the special verdict form had erroneously precluded the jury from considering whether the risk of chunks of concrete hitting the windshield was a reasonably foreseeable road hazard:

Navistar contended that product manufacturers need not anticipate third-party criminality when designing their products. Based on our review of well-settled case law, we conclude the same standard of foreseeability for strict products liability applies to the risk of the harm, regardless of the source of the risk.
. . .
Like truck brakes, windshields on big rig trucks must be designed in anticipation of common road hazards. The very purpose of a windshield is to protect occupants of a motor vehicle from the elements and road debris.
. . .
“So long as the road hazard is reasonably foreseeable, the manufacturer must take steps to address common risks caused by negligent drivers, debris thrown into roads by acts of nature, and even third-party criminal acts.”

In the case of a rock hitting a windshield, liability for a defective design does not depend on whether the projectile falls from a rock outcropping, passing gravel truck, or the hands of a juvenile delinquent. A windshield is not any less defective because it is pierced by an intentionally, rather than an unintentionally, thrown rock.

To deny recovery to an injured user of an otherwise defective product simply because a common road hazard was caused by criminal behavior would negate the manufacturers’ duty to design products to account for reasonably foreseeable risks. Even Navistar acknowledges that “[i]n some cases, intentional torts or criminal acts may be foreseeable and, therefore, within the scope of the risk defendant created, and in such a case the defendant may still be liable for the harm to the plaintiff resulting from the intentional or criminal act.” Strict products liability does not depend on the criminal or noncriminal nature of the source of the risk but on its foreseeability. . . . Foreseeability is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury.

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