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Unreasonably Dangerous in Design
An Overview of the Plaintiff’s Burden Under the Louisiana Products Liability Act
The Louisiana Products Liability Act ("LPLA"), establishes the means by which a plaintiff may recover damages caused by a manufacturer's product. Kennedy, John, Article: A primer on the Louisiana Products Liability Act., La. L. Rev. 565, 565 (1989). Under the LPLA, a plaintiff can maintain a valid cause of action if he establishes that a product is "unreasonably dangerous."
Under this theory, a claimant may recover damages arising from a reasonably anticipated use of the product, when a characteristic of that product renders it inherently dangerous. Jefferson v. Lead Industries Association, Inc., 106 F.3d at 1251. There are four methods by which a claimant may prove a product is unreasonably dangerous: (1) in construction; (2) design; (3) from inadequate warning; or (4) for failure to conform to an express warranty. This overview will focus on products which are unreasonably dangerous in design.
Under the LPLA, a product is unreasonably dangerous in design, if, at the time the product left the manufacturer's control:
(1) An alternative design existed;
(2) That could have prevented damages to the claimant; and
(3) The likelihood the product's design would cause the type and severity of damages that occurred outweighed the burden to the manufacturer to adopt the alternative design; and
(4) Whether or not any adverse effect to the utility of the product would have occurred.
La. R.S. § 9:2800.56.
Therefore, it is not enough that a claimant shows an alternative design existed; a Plaintiff under the LPLA will have the burden of establishing additional steps. For example, in Andrews v. Durfour, the plaintiff was severely burned after her gas tank leaked and caught on fire following a car accident. 2003-0736 (La.App. 4 Cir. 6/2/04), 882 So.2d 15. During the trial, the plaintiff offered expert testimony of feasible alternative designs for a gas tank such as thicker metal or new placement for the tank. Id. at 25. However, the Andrews court held this testimony failed to show how the changes would have prevented the accident, as the expert could not provide information regarding how thick the metal would have to be in the alternative design, or how repositioning the tank would have made it less likely to puncture on impact. Id. This outcome is consistent with LPLA drafters' intent to only hold manufacturers liable when the chosen design at the time of production made the product unreasonably safe, rather than attaching liability merely because other designs or options were available. See Kennedy, supra, at 600.
Conversely, in Garcia v. Brown, the plaintiff was involved in a car accident where the roof of the vehicle was crushed and caused substantial injury. 38,825, (La.App. 2 Cir. 11/24/04, 889 So. 2d 359. The plaintiff offered evidence that a safer alternative existed by admitting into evidence designs of other vehicles by that manufacturer that could have prevented the plaintiff's injuries. Id at 362. Further, the plaintiff in Garcia offered evidence that it would only cost $15-$25 for the manufacturer to have made those changes. Id. This cost to the manufacturer was substantially outweighed by the cost of medical expenses resulting from the accident, and thus the plaintiff was able to satisfy requirements (3) and (4) listed above. The Garcia decision embodies a notion of fairness, which was a goal of the drafters of the LPLA. Galligan, Thomas, Article: The Louisiana Products Liability Act: Making Sense of It All., La. L. Rev. 629, 641 1989. Weighing feasibility and utility can be a great shield for a defendant manufacturer, but can also be a piercing sword for an injured plaintiff.
Overall, the LPLA was drafted to attain two objectives; to create a more equitable balance between claimants and manufacturers as well as add more certainty to cases involving Products liability. The LPLA's approach to unreasonably dangerous in design is a sound example how those two objectives have successfully been implemented. While this article is only a brief overview of a specific theory of recovery, it lends insight into developments in Louisiana products liability law after the passage of the LPLA.