Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 82.008: A Shield for Manufacturers in Design-Defect Causes of Action?

Introduction

Enacted in 2003 as part of a legislative effort to shield manufacturers from liability in cases where they complied with all applicable federal safety standards, Section 82.008 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code ("Section 82.008") provides a rebuttable presumption for manufacturers who are defendants in a products liability design-defect suit.[1]

Under Section 82.008, a manufacturer is entitled to a presumption of nonliability for its product's design if the manufacturer establishes (1) the product complied with mandatory federal safety standards or regulations, (2) the standards or regulations were applicable to the product at the time of manufacture and (3) the standards or regulations govern the risk that allegedly caused the harm.[2]  A plaintiff can only rebut the presumption by proving: (1) the applicable federal safety standards or regulations were inadequate to protect the public from unreasonable risk of injury or damage; or (2) the manufacturer withheld or misrepresented information relevant to the federal government's determination of adequacy of the safety standards or regulations at issue.[3]

Manufacturer's Shifting Liability

In Hamid v. Lexus, the parents of a driver who was killed in a car accident filed a design-defect products liability suit against the car's manufacturer.[4]  The plaintiffs alleged the car was defectively designed because it was sold without an electronic stability control device.[5]  The Appellate Court affirmed the lower court's decision to include a “no liability” rebuttable presumption instruction in the jury charge.[6]  As a result, the car's manufacturer was found not liable, and the take-nothing judgment in favor of Lexus was affirmed.[7]

The plaintiffs argued the mandatory safety standards cited by Lexus did not govern the risk which caused the injury.[8]  They alleged the car's manufacturer was not entitled to the statutory rebuttable presumption of nonliability, even if the car complied with all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSSs”), because there were no FMVSSs which addressed the absent electronic vehicle stability control device.[9]  The court in Hamid rejected the plaintiffs' argument and held the presumption's applicability is based on the relevant product risk, not the particular alternative design alleged by the plaintiff.[10]  Therefore, the FMVSSs cited by Lexus, governing safe stopping distance and braking performance, were sufficient to obtain the statutory rebuttable presumption of nonliability.[11]

However, three years later in KIA Motors Corp. v. Ruiz, a design-defect products liability case involving the failure of a driver’s side frontal airbag to deploy in a collision, the Supreme Court of Texas held that although the car complied with all applicable safety standards, the standards did not govern the product risk that caused the harm.[12]  The plaintiffs argued the car involved in the accident did not conform to all applicable federal safety standards because the particular airbag at issue did not deploy.[13]  The plaintiffs did not allege the car design in general did not comply with all applicable federal safety standards and regulations.[14]

The Court reasoned Section 82.008 requires that the product's design comply with the pertinent standards, not that the particular unit at issue comply.[15]  However, the Court also reasoned the FMVSSs cited by KIA set the standard for how well airbags protect an occupant, and relied on a presumption that the airbags would deploy.[16]  The plaintiffs' argument was based on the product risk being the risk the airbag would not deploy due to defective circuitry, not the risk of the lack of an airbag.[17]  Thus, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs, holding because the applicable safety standard did not govern the risk which caused the harm the rebuttable presumption did not apply.[18]

Conclusion

While on its face Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Section 82.008 appears to be a blow to plaintiffs in design-defect products liability cases, courts still have room to decide how to interpret and apply the statute, as shown by Hamid and Kia.  Although the Hamid court's interpretation of the statute benefitted products manufacturers, the Texas Supreme Court pulled back the reigns and was far more conservative with its approach to the issue.  Consequently, it appears the shield the Texas legislature created against design-defect products liability causes of action is not quite as strong as initially intended.


[1] Kia Motors Corp. v. Ruiz, 432 S.W.3d 865, 869 (Tex. 2014); Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 82.008(a)

[2] Kia, 432 S.W.3d at 870.

[3] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 82.008(b)

[4] Hamid v. Lexus, 369 S.W.3d 291, 294 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, no pet.).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 293.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 296.

[10] Id. at 298.

[11] Id. at 297.

[12] Kia, 432 S.W.3d at 870, 872.

[13] Id. at 871.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 874.

[17] Id. at 872.

[18] Id. at 874.

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