Heaton v. Ford Motor Co.
435 P.2d 806 (Or. 1967)

Facts:

  • The plaintiff hit a rock that was about 5 or 6 inches in diameter while driving on the highway.
  • The truck continued uneventfully for about 35 miles, when it left the road and tipped over.
  • After the accident, the rim of the wheel was found to be separated from the ‘spider.’
    • Experts described the ‘spider’ as the interior portion of the wheel which is attached to the vehicle by the lug nuts.
  • A products liability suit was brought for defective design.

History:
Lower court entered a nonsuit.

Issue:
Whether the plaintiff produced sufficient evidence to support his allegation that the wheel was dangerously defective – i.e., that it didn’t perform as ordinary consumer would have expected.

Holding:
No. Affirmed.

Reasoning:

  • “In the type of case in which there is no evidence, direct or circumstantial, available to prove exactly what sort of manufacturing flaw existed, or exactly how the design was deficient, the plaintiff may nonetheless be able to establish his right to recover, by proving that the product did not perform in keeping with the reasonable expectations of the user. When it is shown that a product failed to meet the reasonable expectations of the user the inference is that there was some sort of defect.”
  • Here, all the jury could do was speculate:
    • High-speed collisions with large rocks are not so common that the average person would know from personal experience what to expect under the circumstances. Moreover, the record didn’t cast any light upon this issue.
  • “The jury would therefore be unequipped, either by general background or by facts supplied in the record, to decide whether this wheel failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected.”
  • The plaintiff contended that advertising published by the defendant created consumer expectations of strength and durability under Section 402A.
    • However, the court noted that “a general impression of durability…does NOT help a customer to form an expectation about the breaking point of a wheel.”
  • In short, the consumer wouldn’t even know what to expect here.

This opinion implies that empirical proof of what consumers actually expect may be necessary when the jurors’ shared experiences are insufficient to fill the gap.