Monday, April 18, 2016
High Court to Rule on Evidence of Industry Custom In Defense of Products Liability Case
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether evidence of industry custom and usage is admissible in defense of a claim of strict products liability.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco Wednesday, voted unanimously to review the ruling of this district’s Court of Appeal, Div. Seven, in Kim v. Toyota Motor Corporation (2016) 243 Cal. App. 4th 1366.
The Court of Appeal decision upheld a judgment absolving Toyota Motor Corporation of liability for serious injuries sustained by a driver who lost control of his pickup truck while serving to avoid another vehicle on the Angeles Forest Highway in 2005.
Attorneys for William Jae Kim and his wife contended that he could not control the vehicle because it lacked a feature known as electronic stability control or vehicle stability control. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Raul Sahagun allowed Toyota to introduce evidence that no vehicle manufacturer offers ESC as standard equipment on pickup trucks.
Justice John Segal, writing for the appeals panel, rejected the plaintiff’s argument that evidence of industry custom should never be allowed in opposition to a claim of strict products liability. But he also rejected Toyota’s argument that such evidence should always be permitted.
There are cases favoring both positions, the justice acknowledged. But the best rule, he concluded, is one that occupies a “middle ground’—that such evidence may be admitted “depending on the nature of the evidence and the purpose for which the proponent seeks to introduce the evidence.”
In the Kim case, the plaintiffs offered several motions in limine, including one that would barred any evidence “comparing the Tundra to competitor’s vehicles and designs.” Had the motion been granted, it would have “effectively excluded all evidence of custom and practice in the pickup truck industry,” Segal noted, but Sahagun denied it.
An expert testifying for the plaintiffs opined that ESC would have prevented the accident by causing the vehicle to brake and keeping it in alignment. Another expert said ESC was designed specifically to prevent accidents of the type experienced by Kim.
Toyota’s experts disputed the claim that ESC would have prevented the accident, saying Kim’s steering to the left—seeking to return to the asphalt after swerving, which he was unable to do because the truck turned too far left and his tires slipped, before he steered right again—would have caused him to lose control even with stability control.
The defense also noted that no one offered ESC as standard equipment and that the Toyota Tundra was the first pickup for which it was available as an option. This is common with regard to expensive emerging technologies, defense experts said.
The jury found the truck was not defective, and Sahagun denied the plaintiffs’ motion for new trial.
Segal, in explaining the court’s middle-ground approach, said evidence of industry custom should be admitted if relevant to the risk-benefit analysis that the California Supreme Court has approved in strict liability cases.
The trial court, he noted, would still have discretion to exclude the evidence if it is irrelevant or overly prejudicially or confusing.
Under the facts presented to Sahagun, he concluded, the plaintiffs’ argument for a broad exclusion of industry custom was incorrect. Since their counsel did not take the judge up on his offer to consider limiting instructions, no abuse of discretion occurred.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company