In O’Neil v. Electrolux Home Products, Inc., 2010 WL 3504191 (D. Mass. Sep. 7, 2010), plaintiff’s two-and-one-half year old son was killed after plaintiff accidentally backed over him with a lawn mower. Plaintiff sued the mower’s manufacturer in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts asserting claims for negligence, gross negligence, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability (the Massachusetts near-equivalent of strict liability) and violations of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 93A (the Massachusetts unfair and deceptive practices statute) based on the allegedly defective design of the mower.
At trial, the judge instructed the jury that they should find a design defect if the product was “unreasonably dangerous to foreseeable users and, therefore, unfit for its ordinary foreseeable uses.” The jury instruction, which also listed a number of factors to be considered in determining whether the mower was “reasonably safe,” was nearly identical to the instruction plaintiff had requested. After several hours of deliberation, the jury submitted a question to the court asking for the definition of “unreasonably dangerous” and a list of criteria. In response, the judge proposed to submit a written text of his oral instruction. Plaintiff’s counsel then objected to the phrase “unreasonably dangerous to its foreseeable users,” requesting instead the phrase “unreasonably dangerous to its foreseeable users or foreseeable bystanders.” When defendant countered that the written response should not use language different from the judge’s oral instruction, to which plaintiff had not objected, the judge provided the text of his original instruction to the jury.
After a verdict for defendant, plaintiff moved for a new trial. After determining that plaintiffs had not waived their right to challenge the supplemental written instruction by failing to object to the original oral one, the court turned to the issue of whether the written instruction misstated the law or was misleading to the jury. Plaintiffs argued that omitting the “foreseeable bystander” language erroneously implied that defendant could be liable only to foreseeable users of the mower, and not foreseeable bystanders such as plaintiff’s son. The court rejected this argument, holding that the “foreseeable users” language was part of well-settled Massachusetts law; indeed, plaintiff’s own proposed instructions, which the court had essentially adopted, did not include the “foreseeable bystander” language. In any event, the court held that the full jury charge, considered in the context of the parties’ opening and closing statements and the testimony at trial, adequately apprised the jury that defendant could be liable for the son’s injuries even though the son was not himself a user of the lawn mower, and therefore was not misleading.