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Apr 05 Attorney Articles

Jury Instruction on Foreseeability Vacates Defense Verdict for Truck Manufacturer

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Collins v. Navistar (March 29, 2013), California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District (2013 Cal.App. Lexis 254)


In a recently published case, the California Court of Appeal came down with a decision which seems to embrace the legal maxim: “On a clear day you can foresee forever.” This case involves a juvenile delinquent throwing a 21/2 pound chunk of concrete from an overpass directly onto the windshield of a truck manufactured by defendant Navistar. The missile crashed through the windshield killing the driver. A wrongful death action was brought by the truck driver’s heirs against the defendant truck manufacturer, Navistar.

Plaintiff’s primary allegation was strict products liability based on the risk-benefit analysis test for design defect. Plaintiff argued the windshield was defectively designed because it did not withstand the forces of an incoming 2 1/2 pound concrete missile and road hazards such as this are reasonably foreseeable. The trial court gave the standard CACI jury instruction for design defect. In determining whether the benefits of the design outweigh the risks, the jury was instructed to consider “the likelihood that this harm would occur.” (CACI 1204).

Not surprisingly, the jury found in favor of the truck manufacturer and rendered a defense verdict. How could a truck manufacturer reasonably foresee such an event when designing the composition of a windshield? However, the Court of Appeal vacated the verdict and remanded the case to be retried. At issue, is whether the jury was properly instructed. In conjunction with the CACI jury instruction for design defect, the trial court mistakenly also gave a heightened foreseeability jury instruction reserved for negligence cases, not strict liability.

However, by any reasonable interpretation the likelihood of a juvenile delinquent tossing concrete boulders from an overpass and successfully hitting the windshield of a fast moving 18 wheeler is incredibly remote. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal held that it is not necessary under the rule of tort liability that the defendant should have had notice of the particular method in which an accident could occur. The Court of Appeal overturned the defense verdict on the basis the trial court had committed error by grafting a negligent heightened standard of foreseeability which the court held was inapplicable to a products liability design-defect claim.

It would seem the Court of Appeal is being overly technical in its analysis and if any error was made it was harmless. Some trial courts would have entertained a directed verdict based on the sheer remoteness of the intervening criminal act by the juvenile delinquent. Perhaps, a better analysis would contemplate that there are certain events which are so unlikely that it cannot be reasonably foreseeable as a matter of law when designing a product.

The Collins v. Navistar jury got it right by returning with a defense verdict in favor of the truck manufacturer. Hopefully, common sense will prevail again when the second jury decides the case.