On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-3437-04.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 16, 2009
Before Judges Rodríguez and Reisner.
Plaintiffs Eleanor Madden and her husband Jerome Madden (the Maddens) appeal from a jury verdict of no cause of action in their products liability claim against defendant Cosco, A Dorel Company (COSCO), the manufacturer of the COSCO chair-stepstool. Eleanor fell off the stepstool. The Maddens alleged that her fall was caused by a design defect in the stepstool that caused a nut to loosen and fall off, rendering the stepstool unstable. The Maddens contended a locknut would have prevented the accident. The jury found that the stepstool was not defective.
According to Eleanor, on December 15, 2002, at approximately 10:00 p.m., she was making holiday gift packages for some friends. She wanted to give one of her friends a jar of homemade jelly, which she kept on the top shelf of her kitchen cabinets. Eleanor pulled the stepstool over to the cabinet and placed it against a lower cabinet to stabilize it. She began climbing the steps. As she put her right foot on the second step, the stepstool wobbled side-to-side and she lost her balance. She fell and broke her leg. The damage to Eleanor's leg required multiple surgeries and rehabilitative therapy. She was seventy-two years old at the time of the accident.
Eleanor did not remember ever attempting to use the second step before that night and did not remember the previous two COSCO-made stepstools she had owned ever wobbling. She did not remember whether she put both feet on the second step before she lost her balance. Eleanor did not notice anything unusual about the stepstool before she used it the night of the accident. She ordinarily took "water pills" to reduce swelling in her right foot, the foot she used to advance to the second step, but could not remember whether she took her pill the day of the accident
Jerome did not notice the stepstool was missing a nut, and if he had, he would have replaced it, "taken the chair out of service," or thrown the stepstool away. He never noticed any defects in the prior stepstools the couple had owned. The first time he noticed a problem with the stepstool was when he took it to his attorney's office. He and Eleanor never located the missing nut, bolts or washer from the stepstool and had no idea where or when they might have fallen out.
COSCO has sold more than one million of this model of stepstool since it began producing the model in 1960. In 1971, COSCO approved an engineering change to use locknuts on the stepstool to: "[m]ake unit stronger so won't shake loose and wobble," a change that would increase the cost of production approximately 1.8 cents per unit. Locknuts were never used because, according to a subsequent engineering change, the production machines in use at the time could not tighten locknuts without the risk of over-tightening, which could ultimately weaken the structure of the entire stepstool.
COSCO stepstools included a warning sticker located on the underside of the chair seat that read, "[f]or your safety, tighten all screws and/or nuts and bolts for security. Recheck periodically." Eleanor never saw the warning sticker. She did not know when the bolt fell off the stepstool.
The Maddens owned three COSCO-made stepstools, all identical, over a period of approximately thirty years, starting before 1969 when Eleanor and Jerome moved to New Jersey. The Maddens replaced the stepstools as they wore out. Jerome assembled the stepstools.
Before the start of trial, COSCO filed a motion in limine to determine the availability of the comparative negligence defense. The judge declined to rule on the motion at that time, stating, "I'll rule on that at the end of the case." The Maddens objected, arguing that the jury should not be exposed to the evidence at all. They renewed the motion at the charge conference, arguing their conduct was irrelevant to a strict-products liability case. The judge declined to charge the jury with comparative negligence. The judge instructed the jury: "[y]ou have heard evidence about how [Eleanor] was using the step stool. When you are deciding whether the step stool was defective, you are not permitted to consider [Eleanor's] conduct." The judge further explained how proximate causation should factor into the jury's determination as to liability.
Specifically, the judge instructed: "[i]f you find that the step stool was defective, then you must decide whether the defect was a proximate cause of the accident. At this point, you may consider [Eleanor's] conduct."
COSCO also moved in limine to exclude two letters and a report describing prior incidents involving that model of stepstool, arguing the reports were alternately hearsay, prejudicial and irrelevant. The documents included a report from 1980 describing an incident when someone fell off the stepstool and crashed into it, bending the legs of the chair portion, and a handwritten letter from a woman saying: "[i]t seemed to need tightening of the screws quite often." The various documents were included in COSCO's interrogatory answers; Madden asserted they were, therefore, adoptive admissions. Madden alternatively argued ...