Whether, based upon the plaintiff's submission on a motion to preclude, she was properly barred from presenting to a jury her claim that the bus was defectively designed by Thomas because it did not incorporate an optional back-up alarm as standard equipment.
Yes. The risk was allocated to a well informed buyer, there exist normal circumstances where the product could be used without the device without unreasonable risk and the risks for the specific use needed were best allocated by the buyer.
The plaintiff was a bus driver for Huntington Coach Corporation. A co-employee stuck and severely injured her when the bus was operated in reverse in Huntington's bus parking yard. The bus was new, made by Thomas Built Buses, and without an optional safety alarm that sounded when the bus was in reverse.
Plaintiff brought the case for negligence, breach of warranty and products liability. Thomas made a motion to preclude the plaintiff from submitting to the jury her claim of a design defect. The Supreme Court decided there was no triable issue of fact on the design defect claim and granted the defendant's motion. The case proceeded to trial on another issue, with the Trial Judge directing a verdict for the defendant and dismissing the case. The Appellate Division affirmed. The plaintiff appealed the merits of her design defect claim.
This Court evaluated the standards of a defectively designed product and determined that the bus was not defectively designed. This case was compared to one in which a buyer who elected not to buy an optional safety device was found not liable for negligent design. In contrast, in a case when a manufacturer did not offer a machine with the safety device but used boilerplate language in the sales contract to attempt to escape liability, the manufacturer could not avoid liability.
This Court found three governing principles for determining cases in which the claim is that the product without an optional safety feature is defectively designed because the equipment was not standard. These are: 1) the buyer is thoroughly knowledgeable regarding the product and its use and is actually aware that the safety feature is available; 2) there exist normal circumstances of use in which the product is not unreasonably dangerous without the optional equipment; and 3) the buyer is in a position, given the range of uses of the product, to balance the benefits and the risks of not having the safety device in the circumstances of the buyer's use of the product. In a case that fits these principles, the buyer is in the better position to decide the risk-utility assessment, and the buyer's decision to exclude the optional safety equipment will then excuse the manufacturer from liability. In this case, these three principles were met. Therefore, there was found to be no triable issue, and the decision of the Appellate Division was affirmed.