Friday, November 16, 2012

Soule v. General Motors Co. case brief

Soule v. General Motors Co.
8 Cal. 4th 548 (1994)

SUBJECT: Risk Utility Test

P’s ankles were badly injured when her GM car collided with another vehicle.
-P sued asserting a defectively designed product. GM denied a design defect and said that the force of the collision was the sole cause of the injuries.
-At trial the court instructed the jury on the consumer expectation test and the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded her $1.65 million.
-Court of appeals affirmed. GM petitioned the supreme court of CA for review.

-Is the use of the consumer expectation test appropriate where the evidence does not permit an inference that the product’s performance did not meet the minimum safety expectations of its ordinary users?


The jury should have been instructed to use the risk-utility test.
-Consumer expectation test should be used when certain products are commonly understood—in theses cases, ordinary knowledge may permit an inference that the product did not perform as safely as it should
-No expert evidence can be introduced in these cases
-The risk utility test is used when there is a complex product that ordinary customers will have no real clue about the performance that is expected.
-In these cases, the jury has to weigh several factors
-The jury must consider manufacturer’s evidence about competing design considerations
-Note that unless the facts actually permit an inference that the product’s performance did not meet the minimum safety expectations of its ordinary users, the jury must engage in balancing of risks and benefits required by the second prong of Barker
-Don’t have to engage in both prongs only if as a matter of law it could be determined that the evidence would support a verdict on the consumer expectations prong
-When it can’t be decided as a matter of law that the evidence supports a verdict based on the consumer expectations prong, the jury must be instructed solely on the risk utility test
-GM has many objections to the consumer expectation test: see case page 563.
-CA does not think that consumer expectation test should be abolished
-This case involved complex questions about technical and mechanical detail—the risk utility test is appropriate
-Because of all the evidence introduced about the strengths, shortcomings, risks, and benefits of the challenged design it is not fair to say that the jury solely reached their decision by way of an independent assessment of what an ordinary customer would expect—so this error in jury instruction did not really have a bearing on the case and is harmless

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