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The Limits of Product Liability

The limits of product liability are not always easy to define. But in one case, the Nebraska Supreme Court helped identify the limits by ruling that two manufacturers aren't liable for harm caused by the criminal acts of others -- even if their product's failure led to the harm.

The court ruled that Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone were not liable for the death of a 19-year-old college student who was murdered by a man who offered her a ride after she had a flat tire.

There was no allegation that the young woman sustained any injury as a result of the tire failure itself. Instead, the student's parents charged negligence on the part of the manufacturers, claiming that the malfunctioning Firestone tire on their daughter's Ford Explorer set in motion a chain of events that culminated in her murder. They argued that the manufacturers knew -- or should have known -- of the potential for criminal assault after the breakdown of a Ford Explorer.

The court disagreed, invoking the legal concept of "proximate cause." Under the law, it is generally not enough to show that an event would not have happened if it weren't for another prior event. Liability generally lies with the last negligent or intentional act that leads to the harm. In this case, that act was committed by the murderer because he shot the young woman.

The court responded: "Assuming the truth of these allegations, the most that can be inferred is that Ford and Firestone had general knowledge that criminal assaults can occur at the scene of a vehicular product failure. However, it is generally known that violent crime can and does occur in a variety of settings, including the relative safety of a victim's home."

The court made its decision even though the federal government had found the tires on the woman's Ford Explorer to be unsafe. Millions of ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires have been recalled after it was determined that they are prone to losing their treads at high speeds. The plaintiffs argued that their daughter might not have driven alone, early in the morning, if she had known of the tire's tendency to blow out. The court did not find this argument persuasive. (Stahlecker v. Ford Motor Co., 266 Neb. 601, 08/08/03)

While this case does express a principle that protects companies from liability from unforeseeable criminal acts, it should not be interpreted as a blanket protection from liability in all cases of criminal behavior by third parties.

A variation: A different set of circumstances could lead to a different outcome. For example, imagine a situation where a man tries to use a jack supplied by the automaker to change a flat tire. The design of the jack requires that the car be close to the edge of the road. The man is then struck by a drunk driver and killed.

This is a scenario where the automaker could be held liable for its negligent design of the jack, even though the criminal act of the drunk driver was the ultimate cause of the man's death.

The difference: In this hypothetical case, the court could determine that the automaker should have foreseen the possibility that an accident might occur.

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