Court of Appeals Affirms Judgment for Plaintiffs in Products-Liability Action

On January 31, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Wilson Sporting Goods Co. v. Hickox, No. 11-CV-445, slip op. (D.C. Jan. 31, 2013) in which it affirmed a judgment for the plaintiffs in a products liability action. Id. at 1-2. By way of background, the action arose from personal injuries suffered by a baseball umpire, allegedly as a result of using a defective umpire’s mask. Id. The umpire and his wife (collectively, the “plaintiffs”) sued the manufacturer of the mask (the “defendant-manufacturer”), alleging products-liability claims. Id. Following a favorable jury verdict on all claims, judgment was entered for the plaintiffs. Id. The defendant-manufacturer appealed. Id.

On appeal, the defendant-manufacturer raised three arguments. First, the defendant-manufacturer argued that testimony of the plaintiffs’ products-safety expert should have been excluded because the testimony lacked adequate foundation. Id. at 5-13. It primarily argued that the expert’s testimony should have been excluded because the expert did not conduct his own tests to determine whether the mask was defective and did not adequately explain his reasoning. Id. at 8-12. The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments. Id. It concluded that “there is no requirement that an expert perform tests, particularly where the expert relies on published data generated by another expert in the pertinent field,” as was the case here. Id. at 8. Additionally, although recognizing that the expert “did not fully explain every aspect of his reasoning,” it concluded that the expert’s explanation of his reasoning was sufficient and that any “gaps” in the expert’s explanation of his reasoning “did not require exclusion of [his] testimony but rather were the proper subject of cross-examination and closing argument.” Id. at 12.

Second, the defendant-manufacturer argued that “it was entitled to have the jury instructed on an assumption-of-risk defense.” Id. at 13-14. The Court of Appeals recognized that “[a]n assumption-of-risk instruction is warranted in a design-defect case if the defendant offers evidence that the plaintiff knew about the specific alleged defect and the associated danger.” Id. at 14. It concluded, however, that there was no evidence that the umpire knew about the specific alleged defect and the associated danger and that “showing that [the umpire] knew the general risks of baseball umpiring was inadequate” to justify the instruction. Id.

Third, the defendant-manufacturer argued that “there was insufficient evidence to support judgment against it on any of the products-liability claims.” Id. at 15. In addressing this argument, the Court of Appeals focused on the plaintiff’s design-defect claim. Id. It stated that “[t]here are two tests commonly used to determine whether a product’s design was defective: the consumer-expectation test and the risk-utility test.” Id. The Court of Appeals analyzed the sufficiency of the evidence in accordance with the consumer-expectation test because, although the Court of Appeals has not ruled on whether the consumer-expectation test is applicable in the District of Columbia, the defendant-manufacturer “explicitly assented at trial to jury instructions that required the jury to make findings under a consumer-expectation test.” Id. at 16. “Under that test, a product has a design defect if it fails to perform in the manner reasonably to be expected by the ordinary consumer.” Id. at 17 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Applying the consumer-expectation test, the Court of Appeals found, inter alia, that the evidence was sufficient to support the judgment. Id. at 17-22. It found that “the evidence indicated that the mask at issue was more dangerous than comparable masks sold at the time,” id. at 17, that the jury could infer “the level of safety an ordinary user would expect” from “the existence of safer, commercially available alternatives,” id. at 18, and that statements made by the defendant-manufacturer’s representative to the umpire would have given an ordinary consumer the expectation that the mask would “perform more safely than other models,” id. at 19. It also found that there was adequate evidence of proximate cause. Id. at 21-22.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment. To view the Court of Appeals’ opinion, click here.