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Friday, July 24, 2015

Liability for Lifesaving Inventions?

I saw that Evenflo has produced a new car seat (which will be sold by Walmart), which is designed to "jingle" when a child is left in the car seat after the ignition turns off.  In light of the seemingly increasing number of horrific deaths of children accidentally left in carseats, this new car seat could be an important, lifesaving device.  And, yet, the lawyer in me found myself immediately wondering about the liability issues, and accompanying normative questions.  Walmart's director of corporate communications has apparently advertised that "this car seat will eliminate the chance of a baby being forgotten in a car."  Of course, that is only true if the car seat is used properly, in a compatible car, with compatible technology, and if the device doesn't malfunction (among other things).  The actual car seat and instructions will no doubt contain such warnings in bold print all over the place.  And yet, despite such warnings, will a product that is designed precisely to ameliorate inattention (which, thereby, may reasonably encourage more of it), and which is advertised publicly as "eliminating the possibility of a baby being forgotten in a car" really be able to escape liability if some slight inattention in the use of the product causes it to malfunction?  In this regard, if this particular product does not work as a result of misuse, it seems that the legal issues may be different than a run-of-the-mill product that fails to function properly because of misuse.  Since the very purpose of the product is to protect against inattention, does it somehow bear a heavier burden to work despite inattention in use?  In assessing such a claim, would a court take into the positive externalities (for the poor, helpless children otherwise trapped in car seats) from the product (in the cases in which it works)? Although I have not thought about torts in a rigorous way in quite some time,  I do not believe there is a formal, doctrinal way to consider such positive externalities in assessing a liability claim regarding the carseat.  And yet, it seems that normatively it should matter that an overly sensitive liability regime may discourage the production of this lifesaving product, and the positive externalities for the otherwise trapped children.  What do others think? 

Posted by Leigh Osofsky on July 24, 2015 at 01:38 PM in Books | Permalink

Comments

Aren't ordinary product-liability principles sufficient here? What's the theory of the case? A design defect claim requires a reasonable alternative design. A failure to warn case requires a reasonable warning that could have been given. Advertising that it will "eliminate" the risk of a baby being forgotten would suggest a breach of warranty or false advertising claims, in which case the crucial question is exactly what the company represented. If so, the legal system's attention is directed exactly where it ought to be: whether the product was accurately described.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jul 24, 2015 7:44:11 PM

I could be missing something, but I agree w/James - Even if we're focusing on EvenFlo's representation here, I'm not seeing how this particular representation would foreclose its misuse defense. And the misuse defense is available as against a warranty claim just as it would be as against a design or warning defect-related claim.

Posted by: Enrique Armijo | Jul 25, 2015 5:37:07 PM

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