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Product Liability Law Relevant to Plaintiffs in Missouri: Research Problems

Avanced Legal Research, Fall 2017

Research Problem 1

Question:

You have potential clients, a couple, who were recently in a car accident in Missouri, and their child unfortunately passed away. They want to sue the manufacturer of the child's car seat for an alleged defect. Through your investigation, you find that the father was texting while driving and the mother was in the passenger seat. Can the defendant introduce evidence of the father's arguable comparative fault at trial?

Research Strategy:

The first place to check for this answer is the Missouri Practice Series on Westlaw in Chapter 38 (this link takes you to Westlaw - if you do not have a subscription, it will not work) of the Personal Injury and Torts Handbook. There is a section in this chapter dedicated to defenses that a defendant can assert. Once you click on that, it explains that comparative fault as a total bar to a plaintiff's claim was abrogated in 1987 by V.A.M.S. § 537.765 (this is a link to a free website, feel free to click - it will work for everyone). This statute now holds that evidence of comparative fault can be introduced in six situations, which covers a wide range of behavior, only to reduce the award and not completely bar recovery.

This, however, is a wrongful death claim, so to make sure there aren't any special rules for wrongful death actions, it is important to check the Wrongful Death Chapter of the Personal Injury and Torts Handbook (Chapter 55). This chapter also has a defenses section. In it, it provides a helpful statute (V.A.M.S. § 537.085) that says in wrongful death actions, the defendant may plead and prove as a defense any defense which the defendant would have had against the deceased in an action based upon the same act it says that in a wrongful death action where there are multiple beneficiaries, the comparative fault doctrine cannot apply. It doesn't really provide a great reason why. Luckily, there is a whole chapter in the Missouri Practice Series Personal Injury Handbook dedicated to Comparative Fault Principles (Chapter 3).

Chapter 3 provides some helpful cases to understand why comparative fault evidence generally cannot be introduced at trial, and defendants instead have to sue the arguably at fault plaintiff later for contribution. It points you to a case called Teeter v. Missouri Highway and Transp. Com'n, 891 S.W.2d 817 (Mo. 1995) that provides a great explanation of why the courts don't want evidence of comparative fault introduced involving the indivisibility of the beneficiaries' claims. Essentially, each beneficiary has an indivisible interest until a judgment is rendered and one beneficiary should not have their recovery reduced by the fault of another beneficiary. When there is only one beneficiary, the case State ex rel. Griffin v. Belt, 941 S.W.2d 570 (Mo. App. W.D. 1997) applies. Essentially, the court held that when there is only one beneficiary, courts don't need to follow the procedure set out in Teeter (but can if they want to) and can introduce evidence of comparative fault at trial.

You should also keep in mind a recent 8th Circuit decision, Coterel v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., 827 F.3d 804 (8th Cir. 2016). In that case, the 8th Circuit upheld the Missouri district court's introduction of evidence of the plaintiff's actions in a wrongful death lawsuit with multiple beneficiaries because there was evidence introduced that casted doubt on the other necessary aspects of the plaintiff's claim for product liability.

Answer

If you bring the lawsuit with both the father and the mother as beneficiaries, the defendant probably will not be able to introduce evidence of the father's comparative fault and will have to sue him later for contribution.

Research Problem 2

Question:

You have an out-of-town potential client come to your law office. She was injured by an arguably defective product in a separate state (she purchased and used the product in that state and had no contacts with Missouri before this meeting) manufactured by a company that has its headquarters and primary place of business in Illinois, and heard there were several Missouri residents who are also going to bring suit against the same manufacturer of the same defective product for the same injury in the Missouri courts who purchased and used the product in Missouri. Can she join the Missouri residents' lawsuit (i.e., can the Missouri courts exercise jurisdiction over the manufacturer)?

Research Strategy:

There is a recent United States Supreme Court ruling that is going to affect this. The question is, of course, how to find it. Law360 (a subscription legal news company through LexisNexis) provides great articles that summarize important product liability cases. In a recent article on Law360, Top Product Liability Cases of 2017: Midyear Report, it describes an extremely important United States Supreme Court Decision: Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017). The United States Supreme Court held that California could not exert personal jurisdiction over the defendant for the claims of nonresidents because the nonresidents' claims did not have any connection to California (did not take supposedly defective drug there, was not prescribed it there, was not harmed there, etc.).

This is, of course, very harmful to this potential clients claim. You probably want to see if the Bristol-Myers Squibb case had been addressed in Missouri yet. If you Google "Bristol-Myers Squibb case Missouri" one of the first articles to come up is Missouri Appeals Court Reverses $72M Talc Verdict. In the article, it discusses how the Missouri Court of Appeals followed the Bristol-Myers Squibb ruling and reversed the award to an Alabama woman based on lack of personal jurisdiction.

Answer

This potential client will probably not be able to bring her claim in Missouri due to a lack of personal jurisdiction over the client.

Research Problem 3

Question:

When can a potential client collect for emotional injury that resulted from watching another get injured by a defective product in MIssouri?

Strategy

A good place to start is with a Google search, something along the lines of "damages for emotional distress from watching someone else get hurt." The third result when Googling this is an article entitled Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress. This article discusses what exactly a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is. The next step is to figure out whether Missouri recognizes claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

A good place to check is the Missouri Practice Series in the Personal Injury and Torts Handbook. There is a chapter on emotional distress, Chapter 18. Under the "elements of the action" section, there is a thorough discussion about when a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is allowed. It reveals there are two different sets of standards for the action, one which applies when the person is directly involved in the defendant's conduct and one where the person was simply a bystander.

Answer

The classic: it depends! If the potential plaintiff is directly involved in the defendant's conduct, they have to show (assuming the defendant's conduct was negligent or tortious): (1) the defendant should have realized that the conduct involved an unreasonable risk of causing plaintiff's emotional distress; and (2) the defendant's conduct caused medically diagnosable and medically significant emotional distress. If the potential plaintiff is not directly involved in the defendant's conduct, they have to show: (1) that the defendant should have realized that [their] conduct involved an unreasonable risk to the plaintiff, (2) that plaintiff was present at the scene of an injury producing, sudden event, (3) and that plaintiff was in the zone of danger, i.e., placed in a reasonable fear of physical injury to his or her own person. These elements are derived from the Missouri Practice Series as they cited cases which list these as elements in support.