28 Strict Products Liability

Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., Supreme Court of California (1963)
(59 Cal.2d 57)

Plaintiff brought this action for damages against the retailer and the manufacturer of a Shopsmith, a combination power tool that could be used as a saw, drill, and wood lathe. He saw a Shopsmith demonstrated by the retailer and studied a brochure prepared by the manufacturer. He decided he wanted a Shopsmith for his home workshop, and his wife bought and gave him one for Christmas in 1955. In 1957 he bought the necessary attachments to use the Shopsmith as a lathe for turning a large piece of wood he wished to make into a chalice. After he had worked on the piece of wood several times without difficulty, it suddenly flew out of the machine and struck him on the forehead, inflicting serious injuries. About ten and a half months later, he gave the retailer and the manufacturer written notice of claimed breaches of warranties and filed a complaint against them alleging such breaches and negligence.

After a trial before a jury, the court ruled that there was no evidence that the retailer was negligent or had breached any express warranty and that the manufacturer was not liable for the breach of any implied warranty. Accordingly, it submitted to the jury only the cause of action alleging breach of implied warranties against the retailer and the causes of action alleging negligence and breach of express warranties against the manufacturer. The jury returned a verdict for the retailer against plaintiff and for plaintiff against the manufacturer in the amount of $65,000. The trial court denied the manufacturer’s motion for a new trial and *60 entered judgment on the verdict. The manufacturer and plaintiff appeal. Plaintiff seeks a reversal of the part of the judgment in favor of the retailer, however, only in the event that the part of the judgment against the manufacturer is reversed.

Plaintiff introduced substantial evidence that his injuries were caused by defective design and construction of the Shopsmith. His expert witnesses testified that inadequate set screws were used to hold parts of the machine together so that normal vibration caused the tailstock of the lathe to move away from the piece of wood being turned permitting it to fly out of the lathe. They also testified that there were other more positive ways of fastening the parts of the machine together, the use of which would have prevented the accident. The jury could therefore reasonably have concluded that the manufacturer negligently constructed the Shopsmith. The jury could also reasonably have concluded that statements in the manufacturer’s brochure were untrue, that they constituted express warranties, and that plaintiff’s injuries were caused by their breach. The manufacturer contends, however, that plaintiff did not give it notice of breach of warranty within a reasonable time and that therefore his cause of action for breach of warranty is barred by section 1769 of the Civil Code. Since it cannot be determined whether the verdict against it was based on the negligence or warranty cause of action or both, the manufacturer concludes that the error in presenting the warranty cause of action to the jury was prejudicial.

Section 1769 of the Civil Code provides: “In the absence of express or implied agreement of the parties, acceptance of the goods by the buyer shall not discharge the seller from liability in damages or other legal remedy for breach of any promise or warranty in the contract to sell or the sale. But, if after acceptance of the goods, the buyer fails to give notice to the seller of the breach of any promise or warranty within a reasonable time after the buyer knows, or ought to know of such breach, the seller shall not be liable therefor.” [***] *61

The notice requirement of section 1769, however, is not an appropriate one for the court to adopt in actions by injured consumers against manufacturers with whom they have not dealt. [***] “As between the immediate parties to the sale, [the notice requirement] is a sound commercial rule, designed to protect the seller against unduly delayed claims for damages. As applied to personal injuries, and notice to a remote seller, it becomes a booby-trap for the unwary. The injured consumer is seldom ‘steeped in the business practice which justifies the rule,’ [***] and at least until he has had legal advice it will not occur to him to give notice to one with whom he has had no dealings.” (Prosser, Strict Liability to the Consumer, 69 Yale L.J. 1099, 1130, footnotes omitted.)

It is true that in [earlier California cases] the court assumed that notice of breach of warranty must be given in an action by a consumer against a manufacturer. Since in those cases, however, the court did not consider the question whether a distinction exists between a warranty based on a contract between the parties and one imposed on a manufacturer not in privity with the consumer, the decisions are not authority for rejecting the rule. [cc]

We conclude, therefore, that even if plaintiff did not give timely notice of breach of warranty to the manufacturer, his cause of action based on the representations contained in the brochure was not barred. Moreover, to impose strict liability on the manufacturer under the circumstances of this case, it was not necessary for plaintiff to establish an express warranty as defined in section 1732 of the Civil Code. A manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being. Recognized first in the case of unwholesome food products, such liability has now been extended to a variety of other products that create as great or greater hazards if defective. (Peterson v. Lamb Rubber Co., 54 Cal.2d 339, 347 (grinding wheel); Vallis v. Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Inc., 190 Cal.App.2d 35, 42-44 (bottle); Jones v. Burgermeister Brewing Corp., 198 Cal.App.2d 198, 204 (bottle); Gottsdanker v. Cutter Laboratories, 182 Cal.App.2d App.2d 602, 607 (vaccine); McQuaide v. Bridgport Brass Co., D.C., 190 F.Supp. 252, 254 (insect spray); Bowles v. Zimmer Manufacturing Co., 7 Cir., 277 F.2d 868, 875 (surgical pin); Thompson v. Reedman, D.C., 199 F.Supp. 120, 121 (automobile); Chapman v. Brown, D.C., 198 F.Supp. 78, 118, 119, affd. Brown v. Chapman, 9 Cir., 304 F.2d 149 (skirt); B. F. Goodrich Co. v. Hammond, 10 Cir., 269 F.2d 501, 504 (automobile tire); Markovich v. McKesson and Robbins, Inc., 106 Ohio App. 265 *63 (home permanent); Graham v. Bottenfield’s Inc., 176 Kan. 68(hair dye); General Motors Corp. v. Dodson, 47 Tenn.App. 438, 661 (automobile); Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358 (automobile); Hinton v. Republic Aviation Corporation, D.C., 180 F.Supp. 31, 33 (airplane).)

Although in these cases strict liability has usually been based on the theory of an express or implied warranty running from the manufacturer to the plaintiff, the abandonment of the requirement of a contract between them, the recognition that the liability is not assumed by agreement but imposed by law [***], and the refusal to permit the manufacturer to define the scope of its own responsibility for defective products [***], make clear that the liability is not one governed by the law of contract warranties but by the law of strict liability in tort. Accordingly, rules defining and governing warranties that were developed to meet the needs of commercial transactions cannot properly be invoked to govern the manufacturer’s liability to those injured by their defective products unless those rules also serve the purposes for which such liability is imposed.

We need not recanvass the reasons for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer. They have been fully articulated in the cases cited above. (See also 2 Harper and James, Torts, ss 28.15-28,16, pp. 1569-1574; Prosser, Strict Liability to the Consumer, 69 Yale L.J. 1099; Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal.2d 453, 461, concurring opinion.) The purpose of such liability is to ensure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves. Sales warranties serve this purpose *64 fitfully at best. (See Prosser, Strict Liability to the Consumer, 69 Yale L.J. 1099, 1124-1134.) In the present case, for example, plaintiff was able to plead and prove an express warranty only because he read and relied on the representations of the Shopsmith’s ruggedness contained in the manufacturer’s brochure. Implicit in the machine’s presence on the market, however, was a representation that it would safely do the jobs for which it was built.

Under these circumstances, it should not be controlling whether plaintiff selected the machine because of the statements in the brochure, or because of the machine’s own appearance of excellence that belied the defect lurking beneath the surface, or because he merely assumed that it would safely do the jobs it was built to do. It should not be controlling whether the details of the sales from manufacturer to retailer and from retailer to plaintiff’s wife were such that one or more of the implied warranties of the sales act arose. [cc] “The remedies of injured consumers ought not to be made to depend upon the intricacies of the law of sales.” [***] To establish the manufacturer’s liability it was sufficient that plaintiff proved that he was injured while using the Shopsmith in a way it was intended to be used as a result of a defect in design and manufacture of which plaintiff was not aware that made the Shopsmith unsafe for its intended use.

… The judgment is affirmed.

Note 1. What is the holding in this case? How does Justice Traynor build on and extend the concurrence he authored in Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling (supra under Express Warranty)?

Note 2. Why does Justice Traynor find that Greenman’s failure to provide timely notice should not bar his breach of warranty claim against the manufacturer?

Note 3. In what way was the Shopsmith potentially defectively constructed?

Note 4. The jury was presented with theories of negligent construction as well as breach of express warranties. The manufacturer argued on appeal that the jury verdict might have been decided due to the breach of warranty claim which (it asserted) was time-barred. Traynor decided that it was irrelevant which theory of liability had persuaded the jury. Why?

Check Your Understanding (5-1)

Question 1. True or false: The legal reasoning in Coca Cola v. Lyons provided an example of formalism, rather than functionalism.

Question 2. Which of the following arguments are inconsistent with the views of Justice Traynor on product liability law?

The question was aimed at distinguishing consistent views in favor of expanding liability from a theory under which one might shrink liability instead (namely, that liability should not attach if the risks are low or infrequent or unforeseeable, or all of the above). The distinction is important partly because it reflects the schism in products liability law between strict liability (Traynor’s aspirations) and negligence (which is what much of the law in this area eventually returned to as a standard, with the exceptions of manufacturing defect, express warranty, or any jurisdiction-specific rules creating strict liability). Some jurisdictions no longer allow strict liability for products liability cases at all.

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