§15.27 Strict Liability Cases
The Case : Whitehead v. Toyota Motor Corp., 897 S.W.2d 684 (Tenn. 1995).
The Basic Facts: Plaintiff was injured when a pickup truck that he was driving collided head-on with a vehicle that was traveling in the opposite direction from Mr. Whitehead's pickup truck. The plaintiffs sued the defendants, the manufacturer and seller of the truck, on a crashworthiness theory (defective seat belt system). The defendants denied any defect and asserted the affirmative defense of comparative fault.
The Bottom Line:
- "[The first question we consider is] [w]hether the affirmative defense of comparative fault can be raised in a products liability action based on strict liability in tort?" 897 S.W.2d at 684.
- "[O]ur answer to the first question certified to us is that comparative fault principles do apply in products liability actions based on strict liability in tort." Id. at 693.
- "The conduct that leads to strict products liability involves fault, as the word 'fault' is commonly understood. See generally William C. Powers, The Persistence of Fault in Products Liability, [61 Tex. L. Rev. 777 (1983)]. In keeping with the principle of linking liability with fault, a plaintiff's ability to recover in a strict products liability case should not be unaffected by the extent to which his injuries result from his own fault." Id.
- "Two principal reasons for the adoption of the doctrine of strict products liability in Tennessee and elsewhere were (1) to encourage greater care in the manufacture of products that are distributed to the public, and (2) to relieve injured consumers from the burden of proving negligence on a manufacturer's part. Our decision today does not weaken these principles. The incentive to exercise care in manufacturing is maintained because manufacturers remain liable for distributing defective products, even though the amount of such liability is determined, in part, by the extent to which a consumer's own fault causes his injuries. There is still no requirement that negligence on the part of the manufacturer be proved, only that the manufacturer distributed a defective or unreasonably dangerous product." Id.
- "The same form of modified comparative fault that we adopted in McIntyre, under which a plaintiff can recover as long as his fault is less than that of the defendant with recovery being reduced in proportion to the plaintiff's fault, will apply to strict products liability actions. The triers of fact will determine the percentage of a plaintiff's damages that is attributable to the defective or unreasonably dangerous product as well as the percentage that is attributable to the plaintiff's own fault." Id.
- "The second certified question from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District is:
If the affirmative defense of comparative fault may be raised in a products liability action based upon strict liability in tort, is this defense applicable to an enhanced injury case where it is undisputed that the alleged defect in the defendant's product did not cause or contribute to the underlying accident?"Id .
- "[O]ur response to the second question certified to us is that comparative fault principles will apply to enhanced injury cases in which the defective product does not cause or contribute to the underlying accident. The respective fault of the manufacturer and of the consumer should be compared with each other with respect to all damages and injuries for which the fault of each is a cause in fact and a proximate cause. The percentages of fault for such damages will be assigned in accordance with the principles discussed in Eaton, supra." Id. at 694.