Monday, August 27, 2018

Kim v. Toyota Motor Corp. (Cal. Supreme Court - Aug. 27, 2018)

It's just so awesome when the opinion can (and does) summarize itself in a couple of concise paragraphs at the very outset.  That way, we can totally ignore the rest of the thing unless we're profoundly interested.  (Now, personally, I'm always profoundly interested, but I get that I'm an outlier on this score.)

So unless you're uniquely fascinated by the issue, the first two paragraphs of Justice Kruger's opinion today ostensibly tell you everything you need to know:

"Plaintiff William Jae Kim (Kim) was severely injured after he lost control of his Toyota Tundra pickup truck and drove off an embankment. Together with his wife, Kim brought this strict products liability suit against defendant Toyota Motor Corporation and related entities (collectively, “Toyota”), claiming that the pickup truck was defective because its standard configuration did not include a particular safety feature, known as vehicle stability control (“VSC”), they claim would have prevented the accident. At trial, the jury heard evidence that no vehicle manufacturer at the time included VSC as standard equipment in pickup trucks. The jury ultimately found in Toyota’s favor and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

The question before us is whether, as the courts below held, this kind of evidence of industry custom and practice may be introduced in a strict products liability action. The answer depends on the purpose for which the evidence is offered. Evidence that a manufacturer’s design conforms with industry custom and practice is not relevant, and therefore not admissible, to show that the manufacturer acted reasonably in adopting a challenged design and therefore cannot be held liable; under strict products liability law, a product may contain precisely the same safety features as other products on the market and still be defective. But even though evidence of industry custom and practice cannot be dispositive of the issue, it may nevertheless be relevant to the strict products liability inquiry, including the jury’s evaluation of whether the product is as safely designed as it should be, considering the feasibility and cost of alternative designs. Because the evidence in this case was properly admitted for that limited purpose, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal."

Beautiful, eh?

Now, the observant amongst you will notice that I said that these two paragraphs "ostensibly" tell you everything you need to know.  Justice Dato, sitting by assignment from the 4/1 (and until recently a Superior Court judge down here in San Diego), files a concurring opinion -- joined by Justice Liu -- that focuses precisely on that caveat.  He says:

"The answer you receive often depends on how you ask the question. Here, the majority opinion broadly frames the issue before the court as whether industry custom-and-practice evidence may be introduced in a strict products liability action. The answer, we learn, “depends on the purpose for which the evidence is offered.” (Maj. opn. ante, at pp. 1−2.) As a statement of principle, this conclusion is unassailable, if a bit opaque. The devil is in the details, and the critical question becomes for what purposes is such evidence admissible, and for what purposes is it not?"

The rest of the concurrence then goes on to discuss those pesky details, and the way the two camps frame the inquiry is (not surprisingly) a bit different.

The end result is nonetheless clear.  This stuff is admissible in a ton of cases.  It'll just require a limiting instruction, as well as care to make sure it's in fact relevant to the defenses the parties have actually made.  (Though I'll also promise you that the defendant in these cases will invariably assert a defense that makes this stuff relevant.  'Cause they'll -- smartly -- be desperate to get this evidence in.  Instruction or no.)