Products liability is a legal theory which imposes a duty on a manufacturer to ensure the safe use of its products. This duty arises from the common law, not the legislature. In the recent Supreme Court case, Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corp., A10-1242, A10-1243, A10-1246, A10-1247 (Minn. July 18, 2012), the trustees of the estates of two decedents, killed when their small plane crashed in a storm, brought an action against the airplane manufacturer for failing to give adequate instruction in the operation of the plane’s autopilot. The Supreme Court decided that the manufacturer did not have a duty to provide training to pilots who purchased their airplanes.
Analysis from the Supreme Court
Products liability is “[a] manufacturer’s or seller’s tort liability for any damages or injuries suffered by a buyer, user, or bystander as a result of a defective product. Products liability can be based on a theory of negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1328 (9th ed. 2009). When liability is based on a theory of negligence, “a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) an injury, and (4) that the breach of the duty of care was a proximate cause of the injury.” Domagala v. Rolland, 805 N.W.2d 14, 22 (Minn. 2011). Duty is a threshold question “[b]ecause a defendant cannot breach a nonexistent duty.” Id. Further, “whether there exists a duty is a legal issue for court resolution.” Germann 18 v. F.L. Smithe Mach. Co., 395 N.W.2d 922, 924 (Minn. 1986). If no duty exists, it is error for the district court to submit the negligence claim to the jury. See id. at 924-25. In Minnesota, “negligence law on a supplier’s duty to warn is well developed. In general, a supplier has a duty to warn end users of a dangerous product if it is reasonably foreseeable that an injury could occur in its use.” Gray v. Badger Mining Corp., 676 N.W.2d 268, 274 (Minn. 2004). A supplier’s duty to warn extends to all “reasonably foreseeable users.” Hauenstein v. Loctite Corp., 347 N.W.2d 272, 275 (Minn. 1984). We have described the duty to warn as consisting of “two duties: (1) [t]he duty to give adequate instructions for safe use; and (2) the duty to warn of dangers inherent in improper usage.” Frey v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 258 N.W.2d 782, 787 (Minn. 1977). “To be legally adequate, [a] warning should (1) attract the attention of those that the product could harm; (2) explain the mechanism and mode of injury; and (3) provide instructions on ways to safely use the product to avoid injury.” Gray, 676 N.W.2d at 274. Foreseeability is the “linchpin for determination whether a duty to warn exists.” Germann, 395 N.W.2d at 924. To determine whether a duty to warn exists, our court . . .
. . . goes to the event causing the damage and looks back to the alleged negligent act. If the connection is too remote to impose liability as a matter of public policy, [we] then hold there is no duty, and consequently no liability. On the other hand, if the consequence is direct and is the type of occurrence that was or should have been reasonably foreseeable, [we] then hold as a matter of law a duty exists. Other issues such as adequacy of the warning, breach of duty and causation remain for jury resolution.
Id. at 924-25.
Most manufacturers take great lengths to ensure that consumers comply with the safe use of their products. Courts realize that inherently dangerous products, like airplanes, cars, or guns, involve a certain amount of risk on the part of the consumer. As long as manufacturers provide adequate warnings and adequate information to allow for safe use, the courts expect the consumer to be responsible for his own actions.
Written by: Lucas Spaeth