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How “Consumer Expectations” Can Determine Product Liability

In product liability cases, the Tennessee Supreme Court has said a plaintiff may use the “consumer expectation test” to prove a product is “in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous.” The consumer expectation test means a plaintiff must present evidence “that the product was dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” For example, in a 2001 decision, the Supreme Court held a plaintiff could rely on the consumer expectation test to sue an automobile manufacturer over allegedly defective seat belts. While consumers may not know everything about how seat belts are manufactured, they are familiar enough with them through everyday use to form “reasonable minimum safety expectations” about such devices.

Expert Testimony Is Not Always Necessary

More recently, a federal appeals court said Tennessee’s adoption of the consumer expectation test means a plaintiff does not have to present expert testimony in order to proceed with a product liability lawsuit. This case involves an allegedly defective ratchet strap, a device used to secure a hunting stand. The plaintiff purchased two ratchet straps in 2008, which he used with his hunting stand for approximately six weeks. After keeping the stand and straps in storage, he next used them in 2011. But after setting up and inspecting the stand, the straps broke when the plaintiff attempted to climb into the stand, causing him to fall and suffer serious injury.

The plaintiff then sued the manufacturer and distributor of the hatchet straps. The case was heard in federal court under Tennessee law. The trial judge granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding, among other things, the plaintiff failed to present sufficient expert testimony in support of his defective product claims. The plaintiff actually offered two expert witnesses, but the judge declared them unqualified under the federal rules of evidence.

On appeal, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment and returned the case to the district court for trial. First, the appeals court said the trial judge abused his discretion in rejecting the experts’ qualifications. But more importantly, the judge was incorrect in holding the plaintiff even needed the expert testimony to proceed. As the Sixth Circuit explained, under Tennessee law the plaintiff need only prove an “ordinary consumer would not expect ratchet straps to catastrophically fail after only a few months of exposure to the elements.” Contrary to the defendants’ arguments, such a determination does not require specialized knowledge of the chemicals or materials used to produce the ratchet straps.

Have You Been Injured By a Defective Product?

If you have been seriously injured as the result of a defective product, it is important you seek independent legal advice to help you assess all of your options. Whether it is a defective automobile, medical device, or a common household appliance, a qualified Tennessee personal injury attorney can review your case and determine the best way to proceed. Contact Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton if you need to speak with someone right away.

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