Soule v. General Motors Corp.
882 P.2d 298 (Cal. 1994)

Facts:

  • Plaintiff was driving northbound in her Camaro when a Datsun heading southbound struck her near her left front wheel.
  • As a result, the wheel collapsed rearward and inward, crushing the toe pan into the passenger compartment.
  • Among other injuries, P broke both of her ankles and developed permanent problems that were expected to deteriorate.
  • Plaintiff attributed the wheel collapse to a manufacturing defect, the substandard quality of the weld attaching the lower control arm bracket to the frame. She also claimed that the placement of the bracket, and the configuration of the frame, were defective designs.

History:

  • The trial jury award P $1.65 million.
  • Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that there was no error in use of the ordinary consumer expectations standard for design defect in this case.
  • GM appealed. Among other things, it argued that the trial court erred by instructing on ordinary consumer expectations in a complex design-defect case, and by failing to give GM’s special instruction on causation.

Issue:
Whether a product’s design may be found defective on grounds that the product’s performance fell below the safety expectations of the ordinary consumer, if the question of how safely the product should have performed cannot be answered by the common experience of its users.

Holding:
No. However, only harmless error.

Reasoning:

  • The consumer expectations test is reserved for cases in which the everyday experience of the product’s users permits a conclusion that the product’s design violated minimum safety assumptions, and is thus defective regardless of expert opinion about the merits of the design.
    • In these cases, expert witnesses may NOT be used to demonstrate what an ordinary consumer would or should expect.
  • However, the consumer expectations test is NOT appropriate when the case involves highly technical, complex, and mechanical detail, clearly not within the common knowledge of lay jurors.
    • In these cases, the risk-benefit test must be used.
  • Here, the court held that it was error to instruct the jury on ordinary consumer expectations, as this was a highly technical case.
    • Specifically, ordinary consumers could not reasonably expect that vehicle’s frame, suspension, or interior would be designed to remain intact in any and all accidents, and ordinary experience would not inform such consumer how safely vehicle’s design should perform under circumstances such as those present in instant accident.
  • Despite the improper instruction, however, the court felt that the result would’ve been the same.
    • Jury was reminded that it could use risk-benefit test and it appeared that they did so:
      • “We see no reasonable probability that the jury disregarded the voluminous evidence on the risks and benefits of the Camaro’s design, and instead rested its verdict on its independent assessment of what an ordinary consumer would expect.”

Rule: Unless the facts of a case actually permit inference that product’s performance did not meet minimum safety expectations of its ordinary users, the jury must engage in balancing of risks of danger inherent in design and benefits of design.