11th Circuit Could Clarify Product-Liability Law

(CN) – Counsel for a seat belt manufacturer asked the 11th Circuit on Friday to affirm the dismissal of a widow’s lawsuit over an alleged defective seat belt.

Auto Liv Japan, a subsidiary of the world’s largest automotive safety supplier, wants the 11th Circuit to affirm a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the widow of Micah Andrews, who died in a single-car accident. Jamie Andrews contends Auto Liv is responsible for a defective seat belt in her husband’s 2005 Mazda 3, which allowed his head to fatally hit the steering wheel.

Attorneys for Auto Liv argue the company merely gave the seat belt components to Mazda USA, who ultimately designed and approved the restraint system.

That’s an important distinction in Georgia’s product liability law, which strictly interprets what companies constitute “manufacturers,” which can be held liable under the statutes, and what companies are simply “product sellers,” who are immune from such claims.

In opening arguments, Andrews’ attorney Tedra Cannella disagreed with Auto Liv’s portrayal, pointing to evidence showing the company was heavily involved in the process of choosing what seat belts would work best in the Mazda 3. Moreover, she argued, there are problems with elements of the device created in Auto Liv’s facilities.

“If Auto Liv doesn’t produce or provide defective designs for Mazda to choose from, then this defective design does not make it into this Mazda 3,” said Cannella of the Atlanta-based firm Butler Wooten & Peak.

Douglas Scribner, counsel for Auto Liv, took issue with the claims of a defective seat belt. The design at issue, he explained, is the amount of “spool out” allowed by the seatbelt’s torsion bar, which can be tweaked by the vehicle manufacturer.

“That is the ultimate issue in the case – who made that choice,” said Scribner of Alston and Bird. “You could not have more clear evidence that the design decision was made by Mazda.”

Andrews first filed her complaint more than three years ago in Fulton County court against Mazda, Robert Bosch Motor Systems and seven Auto Liv subsidiaries. She claimed the companies were liable over a failed airbag and the defective seat belt.

The case moved to the state’s federal court soon after, where U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr. dismissed the Germany-based Bosch corporation. Mazda settled with Andrews in 2016. Last year, the judge granted Auto Liv’s request to dismiss the case.

In his ruling, Duffey said Andrews failed to show Auto Liv was “actively involved” in the design of the seat belt system. Andrews appealed to the 11th Circuit the following month.

During Friday’s hearing, one judge suggested asking the Georgia Supreme Court to clarify the state’s product liability law.

“Is this a case in which we ought to consider certifying to the Georgia Supreme Court?” asked Senior U.S. Judge Richard Goldberg, who normally sits on the U.S. Court of International Trade. “No Georgia Supreme Court case has ever really interpreted these statutes.”

Auto Liv’s attorney agreed with the judge, while Cannella, attorney for Andrews, said it would be “a complete waste of time.”

The 11th Circuit’s decision has significant implications for product liability law in Georgia and could limit or expand consumers’ options to recoup damages.

Frank Vandall, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the tightening statutes regulating product liability cases have increasingly prevented consumers from pursuing such litigation.

“The goal is to make it complicated,” said Vandall, who specializes in product liability law. “The goal is to make it expensive, so the consumer is left holding the bag. … [Consumers] should not have to go through these hurdles.”

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