Manufacturers’ Design Duty May Extend to Intentional Misuse of Products
The Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that so long as the risk of harm is reasonably foreseeable, a manufacturer can owe a design duty even where one is injured by a third party’s intentional misuse of the product. It explained that “a manufacturer has a duty to exercise reasonable care in ‘selecting from among alternative product designs’ to ‘reduce[ ] the [reasonably] foreseeable risks of harm presented by [a] product.’” The high court found that the plaintiffs had adequately pled that the risks of harm were foreseeable. Specifically, the supreme court pointed to allegations that the defendant (1) knew of other instances where crashes had occurred due to Speed Filter being used by drivers going over 100 miles per hour, (2) designed Speed Filter to encourage such conduct, (3) specifically warned users not to use the app while driving, and (4) regularly updated Speed Filter based on data reflecting the feature’s actual use.
In so holding, the supreme court noted that while who was using a product and how are relevant to determining the issue of foreseeability of harm, “there is no blanket intentional-misuse exception to a manufacturer’s design duty under Georgia decisional law.” Relying on its decision in Jones v. NordicTrack, Inc., the supreme court held that a product need not be used in a particular way for a design duty to attach. Jones had clarified that a product need not have been used at the time of injury for a manufacturer to be liable under a design defect theory because the focus is on the foreseeability of harm rather than on how the product was used. The supreme court also held that under the state’s strict liability statute and its common law, a manufacturer could owe a design duty even where a third party’s use of the product caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
The high court rejected the argument that without a blanket-use exception for intentional use, there would be greater liability in Georgia than elsewhere. It noted that the out-of-state cases that had concluded no duty existed had instead focused on proximate causation issues, and that “[c]ategorizing certain considerations as relevant to breach or proximate causation, rather than duty, does not render our decisional law markedly different”. Similarly, the supreme court rejected arguments that public policy required a blanket exception, reiterating that intentional misuse could be relevant to whether a duty exists.
The concurrence agreed that Georgia law did not impose a greater scope of liability, but noted that manufacturers could face significant litigation costs under the majority’s decision because it could be more difficult to prevail at the motion to dismiss stage.
By contrast, the dissent contended that the majority improperly extended a manufacturer’s duty to account for criminal use of its products, and would have limited the duty to only lawful uses.
Lessons for Manufacturers
Litigation Section leaders agree with the ruling. “This decision has an elegant and well-written analysis that teaches a great lesson to the technology industry to discourage outlandish behaviors. Manufacturers have a duty to protect, especially teenagers, and by protecting others we protect ourselves,” observes Fabrice N. Vincent, San Francisco, CA, cochair of the Section’s Products Liability Committee. “It is interesting that Snapchat ended use of its Speed Filter in 2021, after it was first introduced in 2013, once it was found numerous times to be dangerous and associated with many injuries and deaths as seen in the Lemmon v. Snapchat case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,” Vincent states.
“The implications of this case should at least be a warning to other manufacturers as technology continues to evolve and develop,” says Tonya G. Newman, Chicago, IL, cochair of the Section’s Products Liability Committee. “Snapchat is used so heavily by teenagers, whose sound judgment is continuing to develop, so Snapchat and other manufacturers need to design their products with that in mind,” she explains. “Overall, manufacturers, technology developers, and the attorneys who draft warning and license agreements need to understand the use and potential use of their products, foreseeable risks of use and misuse, and how that product can foreseeably impact individuals and third parties,” instructs Newman.