The Montana Supreme Court recently issued rulings in two product liability cases; one involved purportedly inadequate warnings about the risks to ballplayers of using aluminum bats, and the other involved a question of first impression on the admissibility of evidence regarding seat belt use in a rollover accident lawsuit raising negligence and strict liability claims. Patch v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co. d/b/a Louisville Slugger, No. 2011 MT 175 (Mont., decided July 21, 2011); and Stokes v. Mont. 13th Jud. Dist. Ct., No. 2011 MT 182 (Mont., decided August 1, 2011).

The parents of an 18-year-old who pitched in an American Legion ball game and died when struck by a ball hit with an aluminum bat sued its manufacturer for wrongful death, alleging manufacturing and design defect, as well as failure to warn. They claimed that the bat increased the speed of a batted ball, thus decreasing infielders’ reaction times and resulting in a greater number of high-energy batted balls in the infield.  

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the manufacturing defect claim, but denied summary judgment on the design defect and failure to warn claims. The court also excluded the manufacturer’s assumption of the risk defense before trial. A jury determined that the aluminum bat was not defectively designed, but found that it was in a defective condition because the manufacturer failed to warn of enhanced risks associated with its use. The boy’s parents were awarded $850,000, and the court denied the manufacturer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.  

According to the supreme court, which upheld the jury verdict, manufacturers owe a duty to adequately warn bystanders as well as others of potential product risks. The court stated, “The realities of the game of baseball support the District Court’s decision to submit [plaintiffs’] failure to warn claim to the jury. The bat is an indispensable part of the game. The risk of harm accompanying the bat’s use extends beyond the player who holds the bat in his or her hands. … [The defendant] is subject to liability to all players in the game, including [the decedent], for the physical harm caused by its bat’s increased exit speed.” The court also noted that warnings to bystanders were “workable” because they could be provided with advertisements, posters and media releases, in addition to printed warnings on the bat itself.

Rejecting the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred in applying a “read and heed” inference when ruling on its motion for judgment as a matter of law, Montana’s high court noted that case law is flexible on this issue. Because the pitcher died, the court found that it was appropriate to allow the jury to infer that he would have heeded a warning if one had been given. In this regard, the court observed, “Testimony that [the decedent] followed guidelines and that his teammates quit using aluminum bats and switched to wood bats after his death warranted submitting [the plaintiffs’] failure to warn claim to the jury.”  

The Montana Supreme Court has directed a trial court to admit evidence of seatbelt use in a wrongful death case alleging that a seatbelt defect in a rollover automobile accident caused the decedent’s fatal head injury. The representative of the decedent’s estate alleged negligence and strict products liability against the manufacturer, an auto rental company and another driver involved in the accident.

The trial court granted the manufacturer’s motion to exclude evidence that the decedent was using his seatbelt when the accident happened. According to the lower court, state law prohibits evidence of seatbelt use or nonuse in product liability claims but not in negligence claims, and, because it would confuse the jury to prohibit the evidence as to one part of the case but not the other, the plaintiff would have to drop his negligence claims against the defendants if he chose to use the evidence of seatbelt use when trying his strict liability claims. The plaintiff sought supervisory control of the matter from the supreme court, which agreed to do so citing the case’s “extraordinary circumstances.”

According to the court, state law prohibits the introduction of seatbelt use or nonuse “in any civil action for personal injury or property damages resulting from the use or operation of a motor vehicle.” The court notes that the statute’s purpose “is to encourage seatbelt use” and that its sole sanction for failure to wear a seatbelt is a $20 fine. Thus, the state legislature did not intend to penalize a person “in a civil proceeding by connotations of fault for choosing not to wear a seatbelt.” Because the vehicle’s occupant restraint system was directly at issue in this case, the court determined that “evidence relating to seatbelt use or nonuse must be allowed.” The court remanded the matter with instructions to the trial court to fashion an appropriate limiting instruction to the jury advising it that the evidence cannot be used to determine whether the plaintiff was at fault for his own injuries.