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O''Brien v. Muskin Corp.

Decided: August 2, 1983.

GARY O'BRIEN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MUSKIN CORPORATION, FORMERLY KNOWN AS HPE, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND KIDDIE CITY, LIONELL LEISURE, INC., A SUBSIDIARY OF LIONELL CORPORATION AND KIDDIE CITY INC., T/A KIDDIE CITY, DEFENDANTS AND THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, V. THE ESTATE OF ARTHUR HENRY AND JEAN LORRAINE HENRY (GLASS), THIRD PARTY DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance as modified -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock and O'Hern. Concurring and dissenting -- Justice Schreiber. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Clifford, J., concurring in result. Schreiber, J., concurring and dissenting. Clifford, J., concurring in the result.

Pollock

[94 NJ Page 175] Plaintiff, Gary O'Brien, seeks to recover in strict liability for personal injuries sustained because defendant, Muskin Corporation, allegedly marketed a product, an above-ground swimming pool, that was defectively designed and bore an inadequate warning. In an unreported decision, the Appellate Division

reversed the judgment for defendants and remanded the matter for trial. We granted certification, 91 N.J. 548 (1982), and now modify and affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division. In reaching that result, we conclude that state-of-the-art evidence is relevant to risk-utility analysis and admissible in a strict liability case involving a defectively designed product.

O'Brien sued to recover damages for serious personal injuries sustained when he dove into a swimming pool at the home of Jean Henry, widow of Arthur Henry, now Jean Glass. Ultimately, plaintiff sued as defendants not only Muskin Corporation, the manufacturer, but also Kiddie City Inc., the distributor of the pool, charging them with placing a defectively designed pool in the stream of commerce. Kiddie City filed a third-party complaint for contribution against the owners of the pool. Defendants filed cross-claims for contribution and indemnification against each other, and Muskin filed a cross-claim against the owners.

At the beginning of the jury trial, the claims against Kiddie City were dismissed with the consent of the parties. At the close of the plaintiff's case, the trial court determined that he had failed to prove a design defect in the pool. Accordingly, at the close of the entire case, the court refused to charge the jury on design defect. Instead, the court submitted the case to the jury solely on the adequacy of the warning.

In response to special interrogatories, the jury found that Muskin had "manufactured a product that was not reasonably fit, suitable and safe for its intended or reasonably foreseeable purposes or use," that the defect existed when the product left Muskin's control, and that the defect was a cause of O'Brien's injury. The jury found further that O'Brien was a trespasser, rather than a social guest, at the time of the accident, thus exculpating the Henrys. Finally, the jury found that O'Brien was guilty of contributory negligence, and allocated fault for the injury as 15% attributable to Muskin and 85% attributable to O'Brien. Thus, under New Jersey's comparative negligence

statute, O'Brien was barred from recovery. See N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1. The trial occurred before our decision in Roman v. Mitchell, 82 N.J. 336 (1980), and the court did not give an "ultimate outcome" instruction; that is, the court failed to instruct the jury on the effect on plaintiff's recovery of its allocation of fault.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found that the trial court erred in removing from the jury the issue of design defect. Consequently, that court reversed the judgment against Muskin and remanded the matter for a new trial. The Appellate Division also determined that plaintiff was a trespasser at the time of the accident and resolved that the issue of his status need not be relitigated at a new trial. Furthermore, the court below vacated the consent judgment dismissing the complaint and cross-claim against Kiddie City. Finally, the Appellate Division ruled that at the re-trial the trial court should include a charge on the effect of the allocation of fault between plaintiff and defendant. See Roman v. Mitchell, 82 N.J. 336 (1980).

We agree that the status of the plaintiff need not be relitigated, but disagree with vacating the dismissal against Kiddie City. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the remand of the matter for a new trial.

I

Muskin, a swimming pool manufacturer, made and distributed a line of above-ground pools. Typically, the pools consisted of a corrugated metal wall, which the purchaser placed into an oval frame assembled over a shallow bed of sand. This outer structure was then fitted with an embossed vinyl liner and filled with water.

In 1971, Arthur Henry bought a Muskin pool and assembled it in his backyard. The pool was a twenty-foot by twenty-four-foot model, with four-foot walls. An embossed vinyl liner fit within the outer structure and was filled with water to a depth of approximately three and one-half feet. At one point, the

outer wall of the pool bore the logo of the manufacturer, and below it a decal that warned "DO NOT DIVE" in letters roughly one-half inch high.

On May 17, 1974, O'Brien, then twenty-three years old, arrived uninvited at the Henry home and dove into the pool. A fact issue exists whether O'Brien dove from the platform by the pool or from the roof of the adjacent eight-foot high garage. As his outstretched hands hit the vinyl-lined pool bottom, they slid apart, and O'Brien struck his head on the bottom of the pool, thereby sustaining his injuries.

In his complaint, O'Brien alleged that Muskin was strictly liable for his injuries because it had manufactured and marketed a defectively designed pool. In support of this contention, O'Brien cited the slippery quality of the pool liner and the lack of adequate warnings.

At trial, both parties produced experts who testified about the use of vinyl as a pool liner. One of the plaintiff's witnesses, an expert in the characteristics of vinyl, testified that wet vinyl was more than twice as slippery as rubber latex, which is used to line in-ground pools. The trial court, however, sustained an objection to the expert's opinion about alternative kinds of pool bottoms, specifically whether rubber latex was a feasible liner for above-ground pools. The expert admitted that he knew of no above-ground pool lined with a material other than vinyl, but plaintiff contended that vinyl should not be used in above-ground pools, even though no alternative material was available. A second expert testified that the slippery vinyl bottom and lack of adequate warnings rendered the pool unfit and unsafe for its foreseeable uses.

Muskin's expert testified that vinyl was not only an appropriate material to line an above-ground pool, but was the best material because it permitted the outstretched arms of the diver to glide when they hit the liner, thereby preventing the diver's head from striking the bottom of the pool. Thus, he concluded that in some situations, specifically those in which a diver

executes a shallow dive, slipperiness operates as a safety feature. Another witness, Muskin's customer service manager, who was indirectly in charge of quality control, testified that the vinyl bottom could have been thicker and the embossing deeper. A fair inference could be drawn that deeper embossing would have rendered the pool bottom less slippery.

At the close of the entire case, the trial court instructed the jury on the elements of strict liability, both with respect to design defects and the failure to warn adequately. The court, however, then limited the jury's consideration to the adequacy of the warning. That is, the court took from the jury the issue whether manufacturing a pool with a vinyl liner constituted either a design or manufacturing defect.

II

Strict liability law, a relatively recent but rapidly growing legal phenomenon, has received uneven treatment from scholars, legislatures and courts. Underlying the various responses is a shared concern about the allocation of the risk of loss upon manufacturers, distributors and others in the stream of commerce for injuries sustained by the public from unsafe products.

One of the policy considerations supporting the imposition of strict liability is easing the burden of proof for a plaintiff injured by a defective product, a policy that is achieved by eliminating the requirement that the plaintiff prove the manufacturer's negligence. Keeton, "Product Liability and the Meaning of Defect," 5 St. Mary's L.J. 30, 34-35 (1973). Generally speaking, a plaintiff has the burden of proving that (1) the product was defective; (2) the defect existed when the product left the hands of the defendant; and (3) the defect caused injury to a reasonably foreseeable user. Michalko v. Cooke Color & Chemical Corp., 91 N.J. 386, 394 (1982). Proof that the product was defective requires more than a mere showing that the product caused the injury. The necessity of proving a defect in the product as part of the plaintiff's prima facie case distinguishes

strict from absolute liability, and thus prevents the manufacturer from also becoming the insurer of a product. See Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Beck, 593 P. 2d 871, 877 (Alaska 1979); Birnbaum, "Unmasking the Test for Design Defect: From Negligence [to Warranty] to Strict Liability to Negligence," 33 Vand.L.Rev. 593, 600 n. 32 (1980).

Fundamental to the determination of a products liability case, including one predicated on a defective design or inadequate warning, is the duty of the manufacturer to foreseeable users. The duty includes warning foreseeable users of the risks inherent in the use of that product, see Michalko, 91 N.J. at 403, and not placing defective products on the market. Cepeda v. Cumberland Engineering Co., Inc., 76 N.J. 152, 163 (1978); see Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965). A manufacturer who breaches these duties is strictly liable to an injured party. That liability reflects the policy judgment that by marketing its product, a manufacturer assumes responsibility to members of the public who are injured because of defects in that product. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A comment c (1965).

In determining whether a manufacturer has breached its duty, we focus on the product. Michalko, 91 N.J. at 394; Freund v. Cellofilm Properties, Inc., 87 N.J. 229, 238 (1981); Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Machine Co., 81 N.J. 150, 169 (1979); see Wade, "On Product Design Defects and Their Actionability," 33 Vand.L.Rev. 551, 553 (1980). Under strict liability, a manufacturer that produces defective products is liable even if those products are carefully produced. Thus, the legal standard for evaluating whether a product is defective becomes the touchstone of strict liability.

Critical, then, to the disposition of products liability claims is the meaning of "defect". The term is not self-defining and has no accepted meaning suitable for all strict liability cases. Implicit in the term "defect" is a comparison of the product with a standard of evaluation; something can be defective only if it fails to measure up to that standard. Birnbaum,

supra, at 603. Speaking generally, defects may be classified as design defects or manufacturing defects. In cases alleging manufacturing defects, as distinguished from design defects, defining the standard, and thus the meaning of "defect," is relatively easy. For example, the injury-causing product may be measured against the same product as manufactured according to the manufacturer's standards. If the particular product used by the plaintiff fails to conform to those standards or other units of the same kind, it is defective. An apt illustration is a mass-produced product that comes off the assembly line missing a part. The question in those cases becomes whether the product as produced by the manufacturer conformed to the product as intended. See Cepeda, 76 N.J. at 169.

The considerations are more subtle when a plaintiff alleges that a product is defective due to any feature of its design, including the absence or inadequacy of accompanying warnings. In design defect or failure-to-warn cases, the product has been manufactured as intended and cannot be "defective" by comparison to a standard set by the manufacturer. See Suter, 81 N.J. at 170. Rather, the standard to measure the product reflects a policy judgment that some products are so dangerous that they create a risk of harm outweighing their usefulness. From that perspective, the term "defect" is a conclusion rather than a test for reaching that conclusion. Wade, supra, 33 Vand.L.Rev. at 552.

Although the appropriate standard might be variously defined, one definition, based on a comparison of the utility of the product with the risk of injury that it poses to the public, has gained prominence. To the extent that "risk-utility analysis," as it is known, implicates the reasonableness of the manufacturer's conduct, strict liability law continues to manifest that part of its heritage attributable to the law of negligence. See Suter, 81 N.J. at 171; see generally Birnbaum, supra, at 609-10. Risk-utility analysis is appropriate when the product may function satisfactorily under one set of circumstances, yet because of

its design present undue risk of injury to the user in another situation.

Another standard is the consumer expectations test, which recognizes that the failure of the product to perform safely may be viewed as a violation of the reasonable expectations of the consumer. Suter, 81 N.J. at 170-71. In this case, however, the pool fulfilled its function as a place to swim. The alleged defect manifested itself when the pool was used for diving.

As stated in Cepeda, some factors relevant in risk-utility analysis are:

(1) The usefulness and desirability of the product -- its utility to the user and to the public as a whole.

(2) The safety aspects of the product -- the likelihood that it will cause injury, and the probable seriousness of the injury.

(3) The availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be as unsafe.

(4) The manufacturer's ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility.

(5) The user's ability to avoid danger by the exercise of care in the use of the product.

(6) The user's anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability, because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions.

(7) The feasibility, on the part of the manufacturer, of spreading the loss by setting the price of the product or carrying liability insurance. [76 N.J. at 174].

By implication, risk-utility analysis include other factors such as the "state-of-the-art" at the time of the manufacture of the product. See Cepeda, 76 N.J. 174. The "state-of-the-art" refers to the existing level of technological expertise and scientific knowledge relevant to a particular industry at the time a product is designed. Robb, "A Practical Approach to Use of State of the Art Evidence in Strict Products Liability Cases," 77 Nw.U.L.Rev. 1, 4-5 & n. 15 (1977). Although customs of an industry may be relevant, Suter, 81 N.J. at 171-72, because those customs may lag behind technological ...


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