Compliance with Regulations Does Not Shield Manufacturers from Liability
In Memphis, Tennessee, a cocaine and alcohol infused driver, travelling at speeds between 83 and 98 m.p.h. slammed into a 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis carrying three generations of the Meals family. The tragic accident killed the driver of the Grand Marquis and his adult son. The driver’s six-year old grandson, who was sitting in the left rear seat, was rendered a paraplegic. According to evidence, the crash was more severe than 99.9 percent of all automobile accidents.
The boy’s mother filed suit against the intoxicated driver and Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer of the Grand Marquis. The suit alleged that the driver was grossly negligent and that Ford was liable under various product liability theories because the vehicle was “defective” and Ford failed to warn of known dangers. At trial, the jury found that the intoxicated driver was seventy percent at fault; that Ford was 15 percent at fault; and that the boy’s father was liable for the other 15 percent because he had placed the rear-seat shoulder belt behind his son’s back. See Meals v. Ford Motor Co., W2010-01493-COA-R3CV, 2012 WL 1264454 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 13, 2012).
Even though the Grand Marquis complied with all mandatory Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”) applicable to passenger safety, Ford was not shielded from liability. The trial court awarded $4.3 million in economic losses and an astounding $39 million in compensatory losses. And, while a Tennessee appellate court recently remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings because the verdict was “excessively high,” the court affirmed the jury’s finding of liability against Ford.
Meals provides a warning to all manufacturers, regardless of the industry. As stated by the Court, “compliance with regulations and/or common practice does not shield a manufacturer from liability or from a claim for punitive damages when the manufacturer knows that compliance is insufficient to protect consumers.” Meals, 2012 WL 1264454, *8.
The factual record in Meals revealed that, as early as 1993, Ford had begun drafting safety brochures designed to warn consumers about the dangers associated with the use of seatbelts by children and instructing that children be placed in booster seats. Based on this and other facts, the jury found that Ford was liable because it knew, or had reason to know, that the statutory framework inadequately protected children of a certain age and size.
Meals teaches that compliance with mandatory standards is, in many circumstances, not enough. According to Meals, a prudent manufacturer’s research and analysis should not stop with standards compliance. When it knows that a product design presents a latent hazard or foreseeable risk of injury, it should go above and beyond the minimum requirements set forth in mandatory standards, rules and regulations. And, where there are no additional steps that a manufacturer can take to make its product safer, it should provide adequate and conspicuous warnings and carefully document its engineering analysis.
In the sporting goods context, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requires compliance with mandatory consumer product safety standards and “generally encourage[s] the private sector development of, and compliance with, voluntary . . . standards.” 16 C.F.R. § 1115.8(a), (b). While standards compliance does not, and will not, shield a manufacturer from liability in many contexts, it tends to show due care and, when coupled with evidence of a manufacturer’s good engineering judgment, is strong evidence that a product is reasonably safe.