A jury trial? No thank you. The recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Stilwell v. World Kitchen Inc.1 is a good example of why product liability claims can be difficult to litigate when the decision maker is six just men (or, more appropriately, people). This proceeding arose out of injuries suffered by the plaintiff, Lanny Stilwell, when he was washing a Dutch oven in a sink and it shattered in his hands. As a result, he required numerous surgeries and was no longer able to work after the incident. His wife was also required to quit her job in order to take care of him. Mr. Stilwell commenced a claim for a breach of warranty and negligence against World Kitchen in 2002 and Corning was added as a defendant in 2008.
As discussed below, at trial, the jury made numerous problematic and questionable findings that the Court declined to overturn due to the high standard of review for civil jury verdicts and the fact that a jury’s verdict is entitled to a fair and liberal interpretation.
The Jury Verdict
At trial, the jury found the defendants 75% liable for not properly warning Mr. Stilwell about the potential dangers associated with the Dutch oven, while Mr. Stilwell was found to be 25% contributorily negligent. The jury awarded him $1,132,850 in damages, $25,000 of which was attributed to aggravated damages. Mr. Stilwell’s wife was awarded $25,000 for loss of care, guidance and companionship.
The defendants appealed the trial verdict, raising the following three issues:
1. Did the trial judge err in finding that the Respondents’ claim was not statute barred?
Corning argued that the trial judge erred in ruling that the action was not statute barred. The limitations defence focuses on when Mr. Stilwell knew that Corning was a potential defendant and whether the case was commenced within the six-year limitation period.
The Court advised that the trial judge made no palpable and overriding error and that there was no basis to interfere with that ruling regarding the limitation period. The Court observed that the trial judge found a “good deal of support for the plaintiffs’ position that, in these early stages of the investigation and litigation, the available information pointed to World Kitchen as the entity likely to bear responsibility, if any, for the Visions cookware.”
2. Should the jury’s liability finding be set aside?
On the second issue, the defendants took the position that the verdict should be set aside because there was no evidence to support that any alleged failure to warn caused, or contributed to, the incident. They further argued that since the jury did not find any negligence in the design or manufacture of the Dutch oven and there was no evidence of scratches, a warning to discontinue use of the oven if it was scratched would have had no effect. In other words, a warning would not have changed Mr. Stilwell’s conduct.
The Court gave regard to two long-standing legal principles in respect of civil jury trials:
- The standard of review of civil jury verdicts is exceptionally high. They should only be interfered with when “it is so plainly unreasonable and unjust that no jury reviewing the evidence as a whole and acting judicially could have arrived at the verdict,” and
- A jury’s verdict is entitled to a fair and liberal interpretation in light of the evidence and of the circumstances. In the Court’s view, there was an evidentiary basis for the conclusion reached by the jury. Justice Hourigan stated that “while a different jury, or a judge sitting alone, may have drawn different inferences and reached different conclusions, I am not satisfied that the verdict is plainly unreasonable and unjust.”
3. Should the jury’s award of aggravated damages be set aside?
On the final ground of appeal, both parties were in agreement that the trial judge erred in his charge to the jury on the issue of aggravated damages. Specifically, Mr. Stilwell took the position that the instruction had the effect of the jury increasing its award and as such, the $25,000 awarded for aggravated damages should be subsumed into the general damages. The Court rejected this submission on the basis that it was entirely speculative to assume that had they been properly instructed, the jury would have increased the general damages by $25,000.
Key Take Away Principle
So what does all of this mean? This case provides a cautionary tale to manufacturers in that they must take appropriate measures to fulfill their duty to warn consumers of any potential defects in their products, even in situations where there is no direct evidence demonstrating that the warning would impact consumer behaviour.
But what might be even more significant is that in an age where civil jury trials are few and far between, this is a reminder of the deference that is given to a civil jury’s findings of liability and damages. Civil juries are comprised of laypeople. They are not trained in the law, and are certainly not lawyers. Unless a jury is improperly instructed, it will be extremely difficult to overturn its verdict, especially in light of the exceptionally high standard of review. It is the risk that parties take when settlement fails and they proceed to trial. Both lawyers and their clients ought to be keep this in mind when considering litigation strategy and the benefits of early resolution.