Smith v. Louisville Ladder Co.
237 F.3d 515 (5th Cir. 2001)

Facts:

  • Smith worked as a technician for Longview Cable Company and was seriously injured when he fell from a ladder manufactured by Louisville Ladder.
    • He placed the cable line inside the U-shaped hooks that extended from the top of the ladder and rested the ladder against the cable.
    • After Smith climbed to the top of the ladder, he reached for his safety belt and his weight shifted, causing the ladder to slide to his left down the natural slope of the cable.
    • One of the hooks came off the line, and the ladder twisted and came to an abrupt halt.
    • Unable to maintain his grip on the ladder, Smith fell to the ground and was seriously injured.
  • Smith then brought a product liability suit against Louisville, arguing that the hook assembly on the ladder was defectively designed because of its ability to come off the cable during a slide.
    • Smith’s expert, Dr. Packman, introduced the concept of a simple latching device that, when engaged, would close the opening in the hook, encircle the cable and prevent the hook from disengaging from the strand.

History:
Following trial, the jury found in favor of Smith and after taking Smith’s 15% contributory negligence into account, awarded Smith $1,487,500.

Issue:
Whether the evidence established that the alternative design would have “significantly” reduced the risk of Mr. Smith’s injury.

Holding:
No. Case reversed.

Reasoning:

  • To establish a design defect, Section 82.005 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code requires a claimant “to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) there was a safer alternative design; and (2) the defect was a producing cause of the personal injury property damage or death for which the claimant seeks recovery.”
    • “Safer alternative design” means a product design other than the one actually used that in reasonable probability:
      • (1) Would have prevented or significantly reduced the risk of the claimant’s personal injury, property damage, or death without substantially impairing the product’s utility; and
      • (2) Was economically and technologically feasible at the time the product left the control of the manufacturer or seller by the application of existing or reasonably achievable scientific knowledge.
  • Here, the only conclusion Dr. Packman was able to reach was that his alternative design would result in a less violent jerk on the ladder at the end of the slide. He was unable to quantify this reduction in force and was unable to say that Smith or another worker could stay on the ladder in a slide where the hook was prevented from disengaging from the cable.
    • His concept was also only a preliminary concept with no risk-benefit analysis.
    • The expert pretty much dropped the ball here.

Dissent: In short, no need for the expert to quantify his findings, agrees with the Restatement (i.e., a product is defective in design “when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design), and this issue was for the jury.

Rule: In showing “safer alternative design” for design defects, the alternative must prevent or significantly reduce the risk.