Brethauer v. General Motors Corp. – 3/31/2009

April 8, 2009

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds Strict Liability, “Consumer Expectation Test” Instruction Is Not Limited to Where Consumers Have Detailed Knowledge of Product’s Design.

During a single-car accident, Jeff Brethauer was ejected from his Chevrolet pick-up and suffered a paralyzing injury.  He sued General Motors on products-liability grounds for either a manufacturing defect or a design defect in his car’s seat belt.  On Brethauer’s manufacturing defect claim, the trial court instructed the jury on the “consumer expectations test,” which creates liability if the product fails to perform as an ordinary consumer would expect.  For Brethauer’s design defect claim, the trial court only instructed the jury on the “risk/benefit” analysis test, which creates liability if the benefits of a design outweigh the risks inherent in the design.  Brethauer appealed, inter alia, the trial court’s refusal to give the “consumer expectation test” instruction for his design defect claim.

The Court of Appeals held it was an error for the trial court to refuse to give the “consumer expectation test” instruction on the design defect claim.  The Court noted that although the “consumer expectation test” is not required where “the consumer would not know what to expect, because he would have no idea how safe the product could be made,” in close cases, the court may deem it necessary to instruct the jury on both the consumer expectation test and the risk/benefit analysis.  Dart v. Wiebe Manufacturing., Inc., 147 Ariz. 242, 244, 709 P.2d 876, 878 (1985).  While GM argued that most consumers do not know how a seat belt should function in a variety of particular circumstances, the Court noted that most consumers have developed an expectation of how safely seatbelts can be made due to their frequent use of seatbelts.  It further explained that if the “consumer expectation test” only applied where consumers were familiar with a product’s intricate design details, then the test would almost never be applicable.  Therefore, the Court found the trial court erred by failing to give the “consumer expectation test” instruction.

The Court did not, however, order a new trial.  To secure a new trial due to the trial court’s failure to give a requested instruction, the party requesting the instruction must show the error prejudiced the party’s substantial rights.  Here, the court still gave a form of a “strict liability” instruction that left Brethauer free to argue consumers’ expectations.  The Court also noted that it was highly likely the jury found that Brethauer was not even wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident, so they were unlikely to reach a different conclusion even if they were properly instructed.

In addition to the instructional error, the Court considered and rejected a number of arguments directed at discretionary trial court rulings, including evidentiary rulings regarding whether Brethauer was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident, GM’s previous recall of trucks based on faulty seatbelt design, and a videotape montage of various seatbelt malfunctions.  It also deemed the arguments directed to a new trial on punitive damages moot.

Judge Timmer authored the opinion, with Vice Chief Judge Irvine and Judge Brown concurring.