California Court Affirms Strict Product Liability Despite Third-Party Criminal Act

A California court has given new meaning to the judicial maxim “on a clear day you can foresee forever!”  In Collins v Navistar 2013 DJAR 4169, the Court of Appeals, Third Appellate District, held that a manufacturer could be held strictly liable for damages allegedly caused by a defectively designed truck windshield.  In Collins, it was undisputed that the plaintiff was injured by a rock thrown by a juvenile from a freeway overpass.  The 2.5 pound piece of concrete penetrated the truck’s windshield, struck plaintiff in the head causing him severe brain injuries.  The manufacturer predictably argued that the criminal acts of the juvenile, who pled guilty to three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and received a 12 year prison sentence, constituted a superseding cause cutting off tort liability.  The appellate court found otherwise-emphasizing that the windshield failed to provide exactly the protection for which it was designed-i.e. shielding a truck driver from foreseeable road hazards.  The court’s rationale was summarized as follows-“so long as the road hazard is reasonably foreseeable, the manufacturer must take steps to address common risks caused by negligent drivers, debris thrown into roads by acts of nature, and even third-party criminal acts.”   As the Collins court explained, “a windshield is not any less defective because it is pierced by an intentionally, rather than unintentionally, thrown rock.”   The Collins court, citing from the landmark California Supreme Court case of Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, concluded that “strict products liability does not depend on the criminal or noncriminal nature of the source of the risk but on its foreseeability.”

The Collins case is another reminder that even in cases that initially do not appear to have subrogation potential (in this case a third party criminal act caused the loss), it is important to review them with counsel for potential avenues for recovery.

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