Kim v. Toyota: Industry Custom Now Admissible in Strict Products Liability Defense

August 29, 2018

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Don Willenburg, Gordon & Rees, Oakland

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Kim v. Toyota: Industry Custom Now Admissible in Strict Products Liability Defense

The California Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that industry custom and practice may be admissible in a strict products liability action, “depend[ing] on the purpose for which the evidence is offered.” Disapproving several prior appellate decisions, the court ruled that such evidence is admissible for the purpose of “the jury’s evaluation of whether the product is as safely designed as it should be, considering the feasibility and cost of alternative designs.” In contrast, “[e]vidence that a manufacturer’s design conforms with industry custom and practice is not relevant, and therefore not admissible, to show that the manufacturer acted reasonably in adopting a challenged design and therefore cannot be held liable.” Thus, it is admissible, but never dispositive.

This decision is a win for product liability defendants. Many trial courts have ruled all industry custom and practice evidence irrelevant as to strict liability, while allowing it in negligence. The difference in admissibility often determine which claims a plaintiff pursues.

Mr. Kim was injured when his 2005 Toyota Tundra pickup crashed on the Angeles Crest Highway. Plaintiffs alleged that if the Tundra had been equipped with a safety feature that came as standard equipment on SUVs, it would not have rolled over. Toyota introduced evidence that no manufacturers included that feature as standard on pickup trucks. The trial court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court all approved.

The issue …  is not whether the manufacturer complied with a standard of care, as measured by prevailing industry standards, but instead whether there is something ‘wrong’ with a product’s design … because, on balance, the design is not as safe as it should be.

…[E]vidence of industry custom and practice sometimes does shed light not just on the reasonableness of the manufacturer’s conduct in designing a product, but on the adequacy of the design itself.

The court was persuaded in part by the fact that trade association standards are admissible, and there seemed no logical reason to distinguish those standards from industry custom.

The court was also persuaded in part by the fact that plaintiffs themselves introduced industry custom evidence, such as the evidence that many manufacturers included the safety feature on their SUVs. “[T]he rule is a two-way street.”

A copy of the decision is here.

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