Product liability plaintiffs sometimes sue every entity in the distribution chain. But in many jurisdictions under many circumstances, there is an out for nonmanufacturing defendants. That was the case in Martinez v. Medical Depot et al., 434 F. Supp. 3d 537 (S.D. Texas 2020). The plaintiff was injured when an armrest on his unmotorized wheelchair allegedly broke. The wheelchair was manufactured by one company, sold by another, and delivered by yet another. The retail and delivery companies moved for summary judgment.
The case was governed by the Texas Products Liability Act (TPLA). Under the TPLA, an “innocent seller” is a nonmanufacturing seller that is not liable unless the plaintiff can prove one of seven exceptions. Those exceptions relate to participation in design, modification, installation, or actively making representations about the product, or being the only avenue of relief because the manufacturer is broke, gone, or unavailable.
The plaintiff in Martinez could not make out any of the exceptions. The wheelchair was simply delivered in a box. There was no modification or installation. Nor was there any accompanying material representation. The plaintiff groused about a representation of a 300 pound weight limit. The plaintiff weighed only 160 pounds. But there was no showing that the weight representation was incorrect. In any event, the plaintiff admitted he ignored the written instructions because he was pretty sure he knew how to operate a nonmotorized wheelchair. That bit of honesty (who among us has not gleefully cast aside an instruction pamphlet?) meant that the retailer and delivery companies prevailed on summary judgment.
But the court did not stop there. Just in case there would be an appeal, the court also granted summary judgment on another ground: the plaintiff’s failure to designate an expert witness. The plaintiff’s theory was that the wheelchair armrest could not support his weight. The Martinez court held that this sort of product liability theory required expert testimony. The plaintiff argued that expert testimony was required for manufacturing defect claims, but not design defect. The Martinez court disagreed. It concluded that the cause of the wheelchair’s collapse was beyond a layman’s understanding. The plaintiff backed up his claim with flimsy, inconsistent ideas along with some broken parts. That simply wasn’t enough.
Over the last couple of weeks there have been several high-profile, politically-charged cases. What we’ve learned is that notions, speculations, and prejudices that might inspire deeply felt convictions in everyday life just might not be enough to pass muster in court.
And we are okay with that. In fact, we are grateful.