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The Florida Supreme Court last month issued an opinion that adopts a new set of jury instructions for product liability cases.
The move, as set forth in In Re: Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases – Report No. 13-01 (Products Liability), is the ending of a transition that started nine years ago when the Committee on Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases first initiated an overhaul of the model instructions for all civil cases.
The first round of changes, approved in 2010, excluded product liability. In 2012, some preliminary revisions were to product liability jury instructions, but the court was clear: more work was necessary. Now, three years later, the court has reached a conclusion.
There are a number of key changes in the instructions, and several of these will benefit plaintiffs in Florida product liability lawsuits.
The first is with regard to issues of warning. Florida courts have always recognized one-way products can be defective is due to inadequate warnings. However, the old jury instructions on product liability included only design defects and manufacturing defects. Now, Instruction 403.8 indicates specifically that products are defective if a foreseeable risk of harm could have been minimized or avoided by giving a reasonable warning or instruction.
Another instruction, 403.10, also addresses claims of negligent failure to warn. The new instruction states that in order to find a defendant used reasonable care, jurors must find the defendant gave appropriate warnings about specific risks created by the product – risks defendant knew or should have known were possible in the course of reasonably foreseeable use of the product.
The court also validated claims of post-sale duty to warn. This is a big step because defendants in product liability cases still try to vehemently argue Florida doesn’t recognize a post-sale duty to warn, even though case law shows otherwise. This new instruction makes the point clear. Under some circumstances, manufacturers have a duty to warn about certain risks even after a product is no longer in the manufacturer’s possession and has been transferred or sold to the consumer or end-user.
With regard to “inference of defectiveness,” the court underscored that the precedent set in Cassisi v. Maytag Co. still stands. This was a case where a washing machine caught fire and resulted in the destruction of the plaintiff’s house. The machine was destroyed in the fire, so the plaintiffs weren’t able to say exactly what element was defective, but the court ruled the plaintiffs could overcome this hurdle by showing the product failed during normal operation and was therefore defective. This is known as an “inference” of product defectiveness, although defendants still try to challenge that Florida courts recognize this standard.
One issue the courts declined to address was that of determining what constitutes a “design defect.” This has been at the center of much controversy, and appellate courts have handed down a number of conflicting rulings. Some ruled products are defectively designed if they fail to perform as safely as the average consumer would expect when the product is used as intended or in a manner foreseeable by the manufacturer. Other courts have ruled juries should instead decide whether the risk of danger inherent in the design outweighs the benefits of it.
The court acknowledged this issue requires further consideration, but it declined to act on it at this time.
The Ferraro Law Firm handles claims resulting from defective products or dangerous pharmaceuticals. Call (888) 554-2030 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.
In Re: Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases – Report No. 13-01 (Products Liability), March 26, 2015, Florida Supreme Court
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