Honda of America Mfg., Inc. v. Norman
104 S.W.3d 600 (Tex. App. 2003)

  • Woods (who was drunk) backed her car off a boat ramp and into the water. Her passenger escaped, but Woods couldn’t get the seat belt undone. She drowned.
    • The seatbelt was one of those automatic seatbelts that moves into place when you close the door. There is an emergency release.
  • Woods’ parents (the Normans) sued the car manufacturer (Honda) for product liability and wrongful death.
    • Norman claimed that a defect in the seat belt design resulted in Woods getting trapped in the car.
  • The Trial Court found for Norman. Honda appealed.
    • The Trial Court found Woods to be 25% responsible for the accident, and awarded the Normans 75% of the damages based on comparative negligence.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • Norman had argued that the seat belt was defective because the benefits of the challenged design do not outweigh the risk inherent in such design.
      • aka the risk utility test.
    • Honda argued that in order to establish product liability under the risk utility test, Norman would have to show:
      • There was a safer alternative,
      • The alternative would have reduced the chance for injury,
      • The safer alternative was technologically and economically feasible.
    • Although the Normans’ brought in an expert witness to testify to alternative designs, the Appellate Court found that they failed to prove that an alternative design was safer than the one installed in Woods’ car.
      • In addition, the Normans’ failed to establish that their alternative design concept was economically feasible.
        • The expert did not show the comparative costs between the seatbelt that Honda used and the safer model.
  • One could argue that the requirements of the risk-utility test put too great a evidentiary burden on the plaintiff.