Earlier this month, the New York State Court of Appeals – New York State’s highest court – reversed a decision in a product liability action based on a jury instruction that listed an improper standard. The case – Reis v. Volvo – involved a claim for defective design of an automobile, and much of the evidence presented at trial, including expert evidence, invovled the standard practices of automobile manufacturers. The jury was ultimately instructed that the defendant manufacturer must be found negligent if it did not use the “same degree of skill and care” as its peer manufacturers, an instruction that is generally issued in professional malpractice cases for defendants with special skills – such as doctors and lawyers – who are expected to uphold the level of care used by others of the same profession in their community. The Court of Appeals held that the standard is different for other types of negligence defendants in actions outside of the malpractice context, who ought to be held only to a reasonble person standard. At the same time, the Court agreed that the general practices of the industry is relevant and may be taken into account in determining whether the the defendant acted with reasonable care, though a defendant manufacturer’s compliance with the industry standard should not be dispositive.
Both the majority and dissenting opinions agreed that the distinction here was subtle, and it’s slight enough that many people – even practicing litigators – might not see the difference. Indeed, the dissent argued it wasn’t enough of a difference to warrant reversal, particularly in light of the fact that additional jury instructions clarified that the verdict should not be based on industry practices alone. Nevertheless, the majority found that charging the jury to determine negligence based on whether the defendant used the degree of skill and care typical of its industry was reversible error. The case was thus remanded, and now the parties must present their evidence for trial all over again. This outcome is a reminder to litigators that among all the preparation that goes into a trial, it is critical not to overlook the specific details of the legal standards and jury instructions at play, particularly when litigating in state court where there might be nuances in the standards for even typical common law claims like negligence that could ultimately detemine whether or not a verdict will stand.