John M. Kirby May 4, 2014

In a case from February 7, 2012, the North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed a product liability case in which a woman sustained severe burns and died in her wheelchair. Her Estate alleged that the manufacturer of the wheelchair was negligent in various ways, and that the wheelchair had defects which caused the fire. The case was tried to a jury, which found that the Defendants were not negligent and did not breach the implied warranty of merchantability.

The Defense, represented by very able counsel, raised several interesting issues on appeal. The first issue was that the Trial Court erred in instructing the jury on "intervening negligence." Pursuant to this doctrine, a person (e.g. a manufacturer of a wheelchair) who is negligent will not be liable if some other person committed an act which constitutes "intervening negligence," which breaks the "chain of causation." The particular issue in this case was whether the plaintiff's negligence can constitute intervening negligence. (The manufacturer of the wheelchair argued that the deceased misused the chair by, e.g., using a metal necklace to secure a cord to the arm of the chair.)

The Court of Appeals ruled for the defense on this argument. The Court essentially held that the plaintiff's negligence is relevant only to the issue of "contributory negligence," and does not support a jury instruction for "intervening negligence."

In a twist, however, the Court ruled that this error was "harmless" because the jury found that the product was not defective (under the claim for breach of implied warranty). The Court ruled that the claim for negligence was based on a defect in the design of the wheelchair, and that thus absent a "defect," the negligence claim was destined to fail (regardless of the jury instructions).

There are several interesting apects of this ruling. A possible implication of this holding is that a product liability claim based on negligence is now of little or no value in North Carolina. Most product liability claims will be based on an allegation that the defendant was negligent in the design of the product. Therefore, pursuant to this holding, in a negligence action the plaintiff must show (a) a "defect" under sales law (i.e. the UCC, and its provisions for the implied warranty of merchantability) and (b) negligence. Under this reasoning, it is not clear why a plaintiff would ever pursue a negligence action (as opposed to a warranty action), because the negligence claim appears to encompass a warranty claim (and requires additional proof). It bears noting that "A products liability claim based upon a breach of warranty is not dependent upon a showing of negligence." (The Judge gave this instruction to the jury.) Therefore, the claim for breach of warranty, under the Court's holding, will often be the logical claim to pursue, and a negligence claim might be pointless. (Products liability law often also raises other complex issues such as privity, the economic loss rule, and express limitations of liability, which would complicate this analysis.)

The case of Miller v. Invacare can be accessed through this link.

This website contains other recent North Carolina cases.