Justia Products Liability Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
Little v. Kia Motors America, Inc.
Plaintiff Regina Little asserted claims on her own behalf and on behalf of other New Jersey owners and lessees of 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 Kia Sephia vehicles distributed by defendant Kia Motors America, Inc., alleging that those vehicles had a defective brake system. The central question in this appeal was whether the trial court properly permitted plaintiff’s theory of damages based on the cost of brake repairs to be asserted classwide, supported only by aggregate proofs. The jury determined that defendant had breached its express and implied warranties and that the class had sustained damages. The jury found that the class members had suffered $0 in damages due to diminution in value but that each class member had sustained $750 in damages “[f]or repair expenses reasonably incurred as a result of the defendant’s breach of warranty.” The trial court granted defendant’s motion to decertify the class as to the quantum of damages each individual owner suffered. The parties cross-appealed. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s post-trial determinations, reinstated the jury’s award for out-of-pocket repair costs based on plaintiff’s aggregate proofs, and remanded for an award of attorneys’ fees. The appellate court held that, notwithstanding the jury’s rejection of plaintiff’s diminution-in-value theory, the trial court should have ordered a new trial on both theories of damages, which it found were not “fairly separable from each another.” Although aggregate proof of damages can be appropriate in some settings, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered such proof improper as presented in this case. The trial court erred when it initially allowed plaintiff to prove class-members’ out-of-pocket costs for brake repairs based on an estimate untethered to the experience of plaintiff’s class. The trial court properly ordered individualized proof of damages on plaintiff’s brake-repair claim based on the actual costs incurred by the class members. Thus, the trial court’s grant of defendant’s motions for a new trial and for partial decertification of the class were a proper exercise of its discretion. View "Little v. Kia Motors America, Inc." on Justia Law
Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc.
Plaintiff Arthur Whelan filed suit against seven defendants, who allegedly manufactured or distributed products integrated with asbestos-containing components. Whelan claimed he was exposed to asbestos dust while working on those products, including their original asbestos-containing components or asbestos-containing replacement components. Defendants contended that Whelan could not establish that his exposure to asbestos was the result of any product they manufactured or distributed, disclaiming any liability for Whelan’s exposure to asbestos-containing replacement parts that they did not manufacture or distribute, even though the parts were incorporated into their products. Whelan countered that it made no difference whether he was exposed to defendants’ original asbestos-containing components or a third party’s asbestos-containing components -- defendants’ duty to warn and liability attached to both. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. The Appellate Division reversed, determining that defendants had a duty to warn about the dangers of the asbestos-containing replacement components necessary for the continued functioning of their products and that defendants could be held strictly liable for the failure to do so, provided Whelan suffered sufficient exposure to the replacement components to contribute to his disease. After Whelan appealed, the Appellate Division issued Hughes v. A.W. Chesterton Co., 435 N.J. Super. 326 (App. Div. 2014), which held that a defendant had a duty to warn, regardless of who manufactured the replacement components, because under the facts of that case, “it was reasonably foreseeable . . . that the gaskets and packing would be replaced regularly with gaskets and packing that contained asbestos.” The Appellate Division found that Whelan had “presented sufficient evidence detailing his exposure to asbestos,” either from defendants’ original or replacement components or from a third party’s replacement components, to withstand summary judgment. Thus, the Whelan panel reversed the summary judgment order and left the disputed issues of fact to be resolved by a jury. Finding no reversible error in the appellate panel's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc." on Justia Law
Rowe v. Bell Gossett Company
Plaintiffs Ronald and Donna Rowe filed an asbestos product liability action alleging that Ronald contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing products sold by defendants. Plaintiffs settled their claims with eight defendants. When the trial commenced, "Universal" was the only defendant remaining. Universal moved to admit excerpts from the settling defendants’ answers to interrogatories and the deposition testimony of their corporate representatives. Relying on N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1), and noting Universal’s crossclaims, the trial court admitted the interrogatory answers as statements by a party to the case. Although the court cited N.J.R.E. 804(b)(1) with respect to only one settling defendant, it deemed the corporate representatives of six out-of-state settling defendants to be unavailable to testify at trial and admitted their deposition testimony. However, the trial court excluded the deposition testimony of the corporate representatives of two defendants, as well as portions of certain answers to interrogatories and deposition testimony proffered by Universal. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiffs’ favor but allocated only twenty percent of the fault to Universal, sharing the remainder of the fault among the eight settling defendants. Plaintiffs moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial, arguing in part that Universal had failed to present prima facie evidence sufficient to warrant an allocation of fault to the settling defendants. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion and entered a molded judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial on the apportionment of fault. It held that the disputed evidence was inadmissible under N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1) because Universal did not offer that evidence against the settling defendants and under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(1) because the declarants were not “unavailable.” The Appellate Division further held that the disputed evidence did not constitute statements against interest for purposes of N.J.R.E. 803(c)(25). It declined to reverse the trial court’s denial of plaintiffs’ post-verdict motion, however. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court's judgment, reversed it, and reinstated the trial court's judgment. View "Rowe v. Bell Gossett Company" on Justia Law
McDaid v. Aztec West Condominium Association
Plaintiff Maureen McDaid brought a negligence action against defendants Aztec West Condominium Association; Preferred Management, Inc., the Association’s management company; and Bergen Hydraulic Elevator, the elevator-maintenance provider. The complaint alleged that McDaid suffered serious injuries when she was exiting the elevator and the elevator doors unexpectedly and “repeatedly” closed on her. At the end of the discovery period, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and dismissed McDaid’s complaint. The court rejected the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, finding that the malfunctioning of elevator doors is not an occurrence that “ordinarily bespeaks negligence.” More specifically, the court stated that McDaid “did not refute the contention that the electric eye, being a mechanical device, is subject to failure from time to time totally unrelated to negligence.” The New Jersey Supreme Court found that because the malfunctioning of elevator doors that close on a passenger bespeaks negligence, giving rise to a res ipsa inference, the trial court improvidently granted summary judgment. View "McDaid v. Aztec West Condominium Association" on Justia Law
Willner v. Vertical Reality, Inc.
Plaintiff Josh Willner was injured while climbing a rock wall owned by his employer, Ivy League Day Camp. Willner sued the camp and the manufacturers of the wall and parts contained in the wall, Vertical Reality, Inc. (Vertical Reality), and ASCO Numatics (Numatics), respectively, alleging strict products liability claims and negligence. Throughout trial, evidence was submitted regarding Numatics’ conduct both before and after the incident. Prior to summation, the court dismissed the design defect and failure to warn claims, allowing Willner to proceed only on his strict liability claim of manufacturing defect against Numatics. Vertical Reality’s counsel underscored Numatics’ alleged malfeasance. Numatics objected and moved for a mistrial. The trial court denied the motion, but instructed the jury to disregard counsel’s comments concerning Numatics’ conduct. Numatics thereafter requested an instruction to the jury regarding the applicability of Numatics’ conduct in the context of Willner’s manufacturing defect claim. The judge denied that proposal and instead provided an instruction that substantially mirrored Model Jury Charges (Civil), 5.40B, “Manufacturing Defect” (2009). The jury found: Vertical Reality’s rock wall was designed defectively; Vertical Reality provided inadequate warnings; and Numatics’ product was manufactured defectively, all proximate causes of Willner’s fall. The jury awarded Willner monetary damages, allocating seventy and thirty percent liability to Vertical Reality and Numatics, respectively. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's jury instruction under a different standard of review than was used by the Appellate Division: the judge’s actions were harmless error. The Court reversed the imposition of sanctions, holding it would have been unfair to impose sanctions "in a case where the only means for a party to avoid sanctions would be to pay an amount greater than the jury’s verdict against that party, without advance notice of that consequence." View "Willner v. Vertical Reality, Inc." on Justia Law
In re: Accutane Litigation
Accutane was a prescription medication developed by defendants and approved by the FDA to treat recalcitrant nodular acne. Accutane’s alleged role as a cause of gastrointestinal disease ultimately resulted in a series of lawsuits against defendants. The case before the New Jersey Supreme Court here involved over two thousand plaintiffs who alleged they developed Crohn’s disease as a result of taking Accutane. In the years since many earlier Accutane cases were decided, epidemiological studies were published, all of which concluded that Accutane was not causally associated with the development of Crohn’s disease. Defendants filed a motion seeking a hearing on the association between Accutane and Crohn’s disease. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s consideration reduced to the admissibility of scientific evidence under the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. Plaintiffs claimed that a causal connection existed between Accutane and Crohn’s disease. The Supreme Court discerned little distinction between “Daubert’s” principles regarding expert testimony and New Jersey’s, and Daubert’s factors for assessing the reliability of expert testimony “will aid New Jersey trial courts in their role as the gatekeeper of scientific expert testimony in civil cases.” The Court reconciled the standard under N.J.R.E. 702, and relatedly N.J.R.E. 703, with the federal Daubert standard to incorporate its factors for civil cases. Here, the trial court properly excluded plaintiffs’ experts’ testimony. Moreover, the Court reaffirmed that the abuse of discretion standard must be applied by an appellate court assessing whether a trial court has properly admitted or excluded expert scientific testimony in a civil case. In this matter, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its evidential ruling and, therefore, the Appellate Division erred in reversing the trial court’s exclusion of the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts. View "In re: Accutane Litigation" on Justia Law
Continental Insurance Company v. Honeywell International, Inc.
This appeal involved questions about the insurance coverage available to defendant Honeywell International, Inc. (Honeywell) for thousands of bodily-injury claims premised on exposure to brake and clutch pads (friction products) containing asbestos. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification to address two issues: (1) whether the law of New Jersey or Michigan (the headquarters location of Honeywell’s predecessor when the disputed excess insurance policies were issued) should control in the allocation of insurance liability among insurers for nationwide products-liability claims; and (2) whether it was error not to require the policyholder, Honeywell, to contribute in the allocation of insurance liability based on the time after which the relevant coverage became unavailable in the marketplace (that is, since 1987). The Supreme Court determined New Jersey law on the allocation of liability among insurers applied in this matter, and the Court set forth the pertinent choice-of-law principles to resolve this dispute over insurance coverage for numerous products-liability claims. Concerning the second question, on these facts, the Court also affirmed the determination to follow the unavailability exception to the continuous-trigger method of allocation set forth in Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 437 (1994). View "Continental Insurance Company v. Honeywell International, Inc." on Justia Law
McCarrell v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc.
In July 2003, plaintiff Andrew McCarrell filed a products-liability action alleging that Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc. (Roche) had failed to provide adequate warnings about the risks and side effects associated with taking Accutane. Plaintiff timely filed this products-liability action within New Jersey's statute of limitations, but Alabama's limitations period had expired by the time of the filing. The issue is which state's statute of limitations applied under New Jersey s choice-of-law jurisprudence. Roche moved for summary judgment, citing Alabama's two-year statute of limitations. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the governmental-interest test set forth in "Gantes v. Kason Corp.," (145 N.J.478 (1996)), directed that New Jersey's statute of limitations governed the case. The jury found in favor of McCarrell on the failure-to-warn claim, but the Appellate Division reversed based on evidentiary issues. The Appellate Division approved the trial court's application of New Jersey's statute of limitations to the case, however, and the Court denied Roche's petition for certification. After a new trial, a jury found Roche liable for failure to warn, awarding McCarrell $25,159,530. Roche challenged the verdict on the ground that the governmental-interest test had been supplanted by the most-significant-relationship test of sections 146, 145, and 6 of the Second Restatement of Conflicts of Law and argued that, under this test, Alabama's statute of limitations applied. The trial court denied the challenge as untimely. An appellate panel expressly declined to apply section 142 of the Second Restatement, vacated the jury's verdict and award, dismissed McCarrell's complaint as untimely, and did not reach the remaining issues raised by Roche on appeal. McCarrell's petition for certification was granted. The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the jury's verdict and award. Analysis under section 142 of the Second Restatement lead to the conclusion that New Jersey's statute of limitations was properly applied to this action. The matter was remanded to the Appellate Division for consideration of unaddressed issues remaining on appeal. View "McCarrell v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc." on Justia Law