On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.
Before Judges Michels, Skillman and Kestin.
The opinion of the court was delivered by SKILLMAN, J.A.D.
Plaintiff Peter Smith is the owner of a roofing company. At approximately 4:00 p.m. on September 26, 1986, plaintiff arrived at a job site in Moonachie to deliver paychecks to his employees. Plaintiff climbed an extension ladder, which was manufactured by defendant Keller Industries, Inc. (Keller) and sold by defendant Jaeger Lumber Company, Inc. (Jaeger), to get onto the roof of the commercial building where his employees were working. After delivering the checks, plaintiff returned to the ladder. However, as he began his descent, the ladder either collapsed or slipped and plaintiff fell to the ground, suffering serious injuries.
Plaintiff brought this products liability action alleging that the ladder had been defectively designed. Prior to submission of the case to the jury, plaintiff withdrew his complaint against Jaeger and proceeded solely against defendant Keller. The jury found defendant liable, but also attributed 50% comparative fault to plaintiff. The jury awarded plaintiff $115,000 and also awarded his wife, plaintiff Beatrice Smith, $50,000 on her per quod claim.
The trial court granted defendant's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground that plaintiff's liability expert had not testified that there was any reasonably feasible alternative design which would have made the ladder safer. The court also indicated that the $50,000 award in favor of Beatrice Smith was excessive.
Plaintiff appeals from the judgment notwithstanding the verdict, contending that his expert's testimony was sufficient to establish that the ladder was defectively designed. Plaintiff also argues that the trial court erred in submitting the issue of his contributory fault to the jury, and that the jury's verdict on his wife's per quod claim was not excessive.
We conclude that the trial court correctly granted defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. This Conclusion makes it unnecessary for us to address plaintiff's other points.
Since this action was filed after July 22, 1987, it is governed by the Products Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 to -7. L. 1987, c. 197, § 8. Under this legislation, a seller or manufacturer is liable for injury caused by a product which "was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose because it . . . was designed in a defective manner." N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2(c). Liability under this provision is "to be determined according to the existing common law of the State." Senate Judiciary Committee Statement, Senate Bill No. 2805, reprinted in N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1, at 464; see Dewey v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 121 N.J. 69, 94-95, 577 A.2d 1239 (1990).
The determination whether a product has been defectively designed ordinarily involves a "risk-utility analysis," under which a manufacturer is held liable only "if the danger posed by the product outweighs the benefits of the way the product was designed and marketed." Johansen v. Makita U.S.A., Inc., 128 N.J. 86, 95, 607 A.2d 637 (1992). There are seven factors which the Court has identified as being relevant to a risk-utility analysis:
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 [that] would meet the 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 ...