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Roberts v. Rich Foods

March 21, 1995

JOHN J. ROBERTS, BOTH AS AN INDIVIDUAL AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR THE MINOR PLAINTIFFS JAMES A. ROBERTS AND SHERRY A. ROBERTS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RICH FOODS, INC., A FOREIGN CORPORATIONS, WILLIAM LOVETTE, AND ANITA I. ROBERTS, DEFENDANTS, AND ANITA I. ROBERTS, DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, V. CADEC SYSTEMS, INC., A FOREIGN CORPORATION, DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND THE ESTATE OF ORLANDO SOLER, THE ESTATE OF MARILYN MENKES, STONE AND WEBSTER ENGINEERING CORPORATION, A MASSACHUSETTS CORPORATION AUTHORIZED TO DO BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, CONDUIT AND FOUNDATION CORPORATION, A PENNSYLVANIA CORPORATION AUTHORIZED TO DO BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, FLEET SAFETY, A VIRGINIA CORPORATION, NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE AUTHORITY, AND JOHN DOE 1-150, I/J/S/A, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, and Stein join in this opinion. Justice Coleman did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

JOHN J. ROBERTS, ET AL V. RICH FOODS, INC., ET AL (A-68-94)

Argued November 29, 1994 -- Decided March 21, 1995

GARIBALDI, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The matter before the Court concerns the interpretation of the phrase "without impairing the usefulness of the product" as used in section 3a(2) of the New Jersey Products Liability Act of 1987 (the Act). Section 3a(2) of the Act provides an absolute, affirmative defense for defendants in product-liability action that alleges design defect, if "the harm was caused by an unsafe aspect of the product that is an inherent characteristic of the product and that would be recognized by the ordinary person who uses or consumes the product." There are two exceptions to section 3a(2) that preclude the use of the defense: when (1) the product is industrial machinery or other equipment that is used in the workplace; and when (2) the danger "can feasibly be eliminated without impairing the usefulness of the product."

On August 27, 1987, a tractor-trailer owned by Rich Foods, Inc., and operated by William Lovette struck a car driven by Anita Roberts (Roberts). Roberts was rendered a paraplegic. Roberts' husband, John, and their minor children were also injured. Following the accident, Lovette told police that, as he had entered a construction area with a posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour, he had been driving at 60 to 65 miles per hour and entering data in an "X-300" on-board computer manufactured by Cadec Systems, Inc. (Cadec).

In September 1987, John Roberts, individually and on behalf of his minor children, filed a complaint charging Rich Foods, Lovette and his wife with negligence in causing the accident. In February 1988, Roberts filed a cross-claim against Rich Foods and Lovette, and a third-party complaint against five other parties involved in the accident. On August 25, 1989, both John Roberts and Anita Roberts amended their pleadings to allege a products-liability action against Cadec for defectively designing, manufacturing, and labeling the computer. The members of the Roberts family eventually settled with Rich Foods and Lovette.

The sole issue at trial was whether Cadec defectively designed the X-300 computer by enabling it to be operated while a truck is in motion, thereby increasing the risk that the driver's attention will be diverted from the road. Trucking companies are required to pay taxes based on fuel and road usage (mileage) in each state. The X-300's purpose is to provide a computerized record of that road-usage information for tax-reporting requirements. There was testimony at trial that the state/toll-road function of the computer is operable while the vehicle is moving so that, when crossing state lines or entering or exiting toll roads, a driver can record data with greater precision. The computer automatically records the odometer reading, time, and date when the driver presses the appropriate button that is similar to the button depression on a car radio. There was also testimony that it was technologically and economically feasible to make the X-300 operable only when a truck is stationary and that the reason the computer is operable while the vehicle is in motion is for the convenience of the driver.

The trial court charged the jury that Roberts had the burden of proving that the computer was defective because it was not reasonably safe for its intended or reasonably foreseeable use. To meet that burden, Roberts had to prove that the computer's risks outweighed its utility. The trial court instructed the jury to use the risk/utility analysis for the purpose of determining whether the Cadec computer was defectively designed. The court also charged the jury on the section 3a(2) defense, but not on that section's two statutory exceptions.

At the Conclusion of trial, the jury found that the computer was not defective and returned a verdict of no cause of action. Roberts appealed, claiming that the charge on the section 3a(2) defense was reversible error because the two exceptions made the defense unavailable to Cadec. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that the trial Judge should have instructed the jury on the risk/utility analysis but not on the section 3a(2) defense because: the dangers posed by the computer feasibly could have been eliminated without impairing the usefulness of the product; driver convenience was insufficient to justify the unsafe character of the product; and the defense of section 3a(2) was unavailable because the second statutory exception applied.

The Supreme Court granted Cadec's petition for certification.

HELD: To preclude the defendant's use of the 3a(2) defense, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the danger feasibly could have been eliminated without impairing the product's usefulness. A plaintiff seeking to establish this second exception to the 3a(2) defense must prove that the defendant could have eliminated the danger without eliminating an inherent characteristic of the product, and thereby significantly diminishing the product's intended use.

1. In interpreting section 3a(2), the Court is mindful of the legislative policy limiting the liability of manufacturers in order to balance the interests of the public and the individual with a view toward economic reality. Under common law, the components of the 3a(2) defense were part of the risk/utility analysis, and it was the plaintiff's burden to prove that the risk outweighed utility. That burden remains the same under section 3a(2). (pp. 8-14)

2. The Act provides the defendant with a defense that did not exist under common law. Under the Act, a product that satisfies the 3a(2) standard is, by statutory definition, not defectively designed. Because this is an affirmative defense, it is the defendant who has the burden of proof. However, case law and legislative history are silent on whose burden it is to prove the second exception to section 3a(2) that the danger feasibly could have been eliminated without impairing the usefulness of the product. Placing that burden of proof on the plaintiff conforms to both the plain language of the statute and the legislative intent. (pp. 14-16)

3. The legislative history of the Act suggests that "without impairing the usefulness" implicates the product's inherent characteristics and intended use. Dangers that are inherent cannot be eliminated without impairing usefulness; an inherent danger arises from an aspect of the product that is indispensable to its intended use. Further, "impairing the usefulness of the product" means significantly diminishing its intended use. Thus, even when it is economically feasible to eliminate the danger, section 3a(2) still provides a defense if eliminating the danger would require eliminating an inherent characteristic. Of course, an inherent characteristic is one that is an essential characteristic. (pp. 16-20)

4. Although it is technologically and economically feasible to redesign the computer, it is not clear that that can be done without impairing the product's usefulness. Thus, the jury must decide whether operability of all functions of the computer while in motion is an inherent characteristic of the X-300, and whether eliminating that feature in whole or in part would significantly diminish its intended use. Here, the trial court failed to properly charge the jury in respect of the exception to the 3a(2) defense. Whether Cadec, without impairing the usefulness of the computer, could have eliminated the dangers posed by the X-300's being operable while in motion is a question of fact that a jury properly charged should decide. (pp. 20-22)

As MODIFIED, the judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN and STEIN join in JUSTICE GARIBALDI's opinion. JUSTICE COLEMAN did not participate.

GARIBALDI, J.

This appeal concerns the interpretation of the phrase "without impairing the usefulness of the product" as used in section 3a(2) of the New Jersey Products Liability Act of 1987 (the Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 to -7. Section 3a(2) of the Act provides an absolute, affirmative defense for defendants in suits for design defect, if "the harm was caused by an unsafe aspect of the product that is an inherent characteristic of the product and that would be recognized by the ordinary person who uses or consumes the product." Section 3a(2) also provides two exceptions that preclude use of the defense: when the product is "industrial machinery or other equipment [that] is used in the workplace"; and when the danger "can feasibly be eliminated without impairing the usefulness of the product." Only the second exception is before us.

I

On August 27, 1987, a tractor-trailer truck owned by defendant Rich Foods, Inc., (Rich Foods), and operated by defendant William Lovette (Lovette) struck the car that Anita Roberts (Roberts) was driving. Several other cars were involved in the pile-up, and the accident resulted in fatalities and many injuries. Roberts was seriously hurt -- she became a paraplegic -- and her husband, John Roberts, and her minor children, who were sleeping passengers in the car, were also injured. Several hours after the accident, Lovette told the police that, as he had entered a construction area with a posted speed limit of forty-five miles per hour, he had been driving at sixty to sixty-five miles per hour and entering data in an "X-300" on-board computer manufactured by defendant Cadec Systems, Inc. (Cadec).

In September 1987, John Roberts, individually and as guardian ad litem for his two children, filed a complaint charging Rich Foods, Lovette, and his wife with negligence for causing the accident. In February 1988, Anita Roberts filed a cross-claim against Rich Foods and Lovette, and a third-party complaint against five additional parties involved in the accident. On August 25, 1989, plaintiffs and third-party plaintiff amended their pleadings to commence a product-liability action against Cadec for defectively designing, manufacturing, and labeling the computer. After a complicated series of claims and cross-claims among the many parties involved, the members of the Roberts family settled with Rich Foods and Lovette. All parties agreed that Lovette had been negligent; that Rich Foods, as his employer, was responsible; and that Lovette's negligence was a proximate cause of the accident.

The sole issue at trial was whether Cadec defectively designed the X-300 by allowing it to operate while a truck is in motion, which raises the risk that the driver's attention will be diverted from the road. The X-300 is Cadec's top of the line on-board computer. At issue is its "state/toll-road" function. Trucking companies are required to pay taxes based on fuel and road usage (mileage) in each state. The X-300's purpose is to provide a computerized record of that road-usage information for tax-reporting purposes.

At trial, Ernest J. Simmons., Jr., Cadec's former Chairman, President, Chief Executive Officer, and Treasurer, who was extensively involved in the designing of the X-300, testified that

the state/toll road feature is a button . . . on the panel . . . and upon depression of that button the on-board computer automatically records the odometer, the time . . . and the day. . . That recording together with information that is subsequently entered by the driver at some time thereafter, not necessarily coincident with the depression of the button, but at some time when it's safe to do so, that information is ultimately turned into a dispatch . . . and processed on a central computer . . . . [The purpose of that ...


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