In the case of Edwards v. Pepsico, 268 Fed. Appx. 756, 2008 U.S. App, Mr. Edwards had three fingers cut off of his dominant hand while working on a bulk bag unloading unit (BBU) at his place of employment, Whitlock Packaging Corporation, Inc. (Whitlock). His lawsuit claimed that, under Oklahoma state-law theories of manufacturers' product liability and gross negligence, defendants were responsible for design flaws in the BBU and a failure to warn of safety concerns.
At trial, the jury learned about the BBU and the roles played by the various defendants. The BBU was designed for Pepsi-Cola Company, a division of Pepsico, Inc. (Pepsi), as part of a system for the production of ready-to-drink beverages bottled under the Lipton Tea name. Pepsi pressed for a hastened manufacturing schedule because it had acknowledged bottled tea as a profitable product. The BBU holds a 1,600-pound sack of tea leaves and allows the leaves to flow through its rotary feeder component to unload a specified weight into a large brew basket.
Lockwood Greene Engineers (LGE), a design and procurement firm, created the initial design and, as Pepsi's agent, hired B.W. Sinclair, Inc. To manufacture ten of the systems. Wm. W. Meyer & Sons, Inc. (Meyer) entered into a contract with Sinclair to supply the BBU feeder component. During the bidding process, Meyer deleted a discharge guard for the feeder component from the quote at the request of a Sinclair manufacturing representative. Meyer delivered the feeders, with attached warning stickers, additional warning stickers, and manuals warning against operating the feeder without a guard on the discharge end and warning the user to keep hands away from the feeder. Sinclair integrated the feeders into the systems and delivered them to designated facilities. One of the ten systems was installed at Whitlock, which installed a guard on the feeder approximately two years before Mr. Edwards' injury but later took it off because it interfered with the flow of tea.
At the time of the incident, Mr. Edwards believed there was a clog in the BBU. He tried to fix the problem without shutting off the power or noticing the warning signs. He knelt down and placed his dominant hand into the unguarded discharge opening of the feeder. The rotating vanes inside the feeder sliced off his fingers. Mr. Edwards' experts testified that the unguarded moving blades of the feeder were unreasonably dangerous and that defendants had cost-effective, alternative-design options. They also claimed that the existing warnings were too small, blocked by hardware, or in the wrong place. Plaintiff's theory of the case was that speed and greed controlled the project rather than current engineering standards.
Defendants put on evidence indicating that, prior to Mr. Edwards' incident, there had been no reports of similar injuries to workers on any of the ten manufactured systems. An experienced manufacturing manager testified that he had never seen a guard on the discharge outlet of a BBU because there was no expectation that an operator would be near it. In addition, they established that Mr. Edwards was aware of Whitlock's safety rules prohibiting employees from putting their hands into moving machines and requiring employees to shut off power before working on equipment. The district court denied the defendants' motions for judgment as a matter of law on Mr. Edwards' claims for negligence and manufacturers' product liability. Before sending the case to the jury, however, the court dismissed the claim for punitive damages. The court also declined to give Mr. Edwards' two proposed instructions on the law of agency.
The jury returned a verdict against the Pepsi defendants and Sinclair, but in favor of LGE and Meyer. The jury awarded Mr. Edwards a total of $1,500,000. In allocating fault with regard to the negligence claim, the jury found Mr. Edwards 10% negligent, Pepsi 50% negligent, Sinclair 20% negligent, Whitlock (a non-party) 20% negligent, and LGE and Meyer 0% negligent. The district court entered judgment on the jury verdict.
According to Oklahoma manufacturers' product liability law a plaintiff has to demonstrate three elements in order to be victorious: (1) the product was the cause of the plaintiff's injury; (2) a defect in the product existed at the time it left the defendants' ownership and control; and (3) the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous. The alleged defect may be the result of a problem in the product's design or manufacture, or it may be the result of inadequate warnings regarding use of the product. Also under Oklahoma law, a manufacturer's product liability claim applies to manufacturers, processors, assemblers, and all other persons who are likewise positioned in processing and distribution of the product. There is no legal support, however, for extending this principle and making all defendants within the chain of distribution automatically liable for a defective product. Rather, responsibility for the defect must still be traced to the proper defendant. Thus, which defendant is responsible for an alleged defect is determined in the trial court (Edwards v. Pepsico, 2008).
"A person required to pay damages to another must owe a legal duty to the injured person. This duty can be imposed by the federal or state constitution, federal or state statutes passed by the U.S. Congress or a state legislature, or the "common law." When an appeals court establishes a legal principle, this is known as the "common law" and is effective until it is overturned by a later decision or in some cases by Congress or the legislature. Manufacturers' products liability is part of the common law" (Walters, 2012).
In 1974, the Oklahoma Supreme Court recognized the theory of manufacturers' products liability in the case of Kirkland v. General Motors. Manufacturers' products liability is unlike than other forms of liability because it is strict liability. This means the defendant can be found legally responsible without fault. Therefore, a manufacturer can be legally responsible without bad intention, even if it followed present standards for its product. The statute of limitations, or time limit within which a case can be filed, goes from the date of personal injury or damage to property, and not from the time the product is sold to the end user (Walters, 2012).
In Kirkland, the court noted that the plaintiff must prove three elements to prevail in a product liability action:
"First, Plaintiff must prove that the product was the cause of the injury; the mere possibility that it might have caused the injury is not enough.
Secondly, Plaintiff must prove that the defect existed in the product, if the action is against the manufacturer, at the time the product left the manufacturer's possession and control. If the action is against the retailer or supplier of the article, the Plaintiff must prove that the article was defective at the time of sale for public use or consumption or at the time it left the retailer's possession and control.
Thirdly, Plaintiff must prove that the defect made the article unreasonably dangerous to him or his property as the term "unreasonably dangerous is ... defined" (Pearson, Wolfe, Whitmire & Anderson, 2002).
Oklahoma follows the consumer expectations test for figuring out if a manufacturer is legally responsible. This requires the claimant to establish that the product was (1) unreasonably hazardous (2) beyond the anticipation of the ordinary user (3) at the time it left the control and power of the manufacturer and (4) caused the damage. It is not enough that the product is hazardous. It must be unfairly dangerous from the point-of-view of its ordinary user. "Chain saws, lawn mowers, welding machines, gasoline, pesticides, kitchen utensils, natural gas and numerous other products are dangerous, but usually not unreasonably so. The ordinary consumer of the product is one who has knowledge of the characteristics of the product. Thus, whether a piece of construction or agricultural equipment is unreasonably dangerous is considered from the perspective of the average construction worker or farmer, not that of a teacher, accountant or clergy person" (Walters, 2012).
Although this is known as manufacturer's products liability, the theory of liability applies to everybody in the distribution network from the factory to the retail outlet. Therefore, an injured person has a claim against the retail seller, wholesaler, and importer of any product that causes harm without suing the manufacturer, which may be located in a part of the world where it is hard to serve with process. Each person who distributes the product, though, has a claim upstream against its resource for compensation for any costs of defending the claim and damages paid to the injured party (Walters, 2012).
The theory of liability applies to all products. Many cases today concern drugs, even though special rules apply to pharmaceuticals because customers rely on their health care providers and the FDA for their information about the effectiveness and safety of the drugs. Manufacturers' products liability is usually fair to sellers and customers. Yet, like all human activity, there are extraordinary cases which produce adverse publicity for the legal…