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Won a significant product liability appeal for Ford in the Colorado Supreme Court.

Walker v. Ford Motor Co., 2017 CO 102
Date: 11.13.17

Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell (WTO) attorneys won a significant victory for Ford Motor Co. in the Colorado Supreme Court. The case, Walker v. Ford Motor Co. (2017 CO 102), reestablishes that the risk-benefit test is the appropriate test for juries to assess whether a product has been defectively designed. In its opinion, the Supreme Court also held that a manufacturer could not be negligent if it designed a “reasonably safe” product.

The case involves an accident in which the plaintiff was rear-ended and his seat deformed backward to absorb the shock of the impact. The plaintiff alleged that this resulted in head and neck injuries and that the seat had an “unreasonably dangerous” design. In a 2013 trial, the court allowed the jury to determine defect by either a risk-benefit or consumer-expectation test. The jury found Ford liable on both strict liability and negligence.

Ford appealed, asserting that the trial court erred when it did not instruct the jury to apply only Colorado’s risk-benefit test. The Colorado Supreme Court, in 1987, held that the risk-benefit test is the appropriate standard to determine liability in lawsuits of this nature (Camacho v. Honda Motor Co.). However, a 1996 Court of Appeals ruling, Biosera v. Forma Scientific, said that courts could instruct the jury under either the risk-benefit or the consumer-expectation test, or both. This standard was incorporated into Colorado’s pattern instructions, which Ford successfully challenged.

In 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred, reversed the jury decision, and remanded the case for a new trial with instructions to apply the risk-benefit test. The plaintiff appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s opinion improves on the Court of Appeals ruling, which arrived at the same conclusion. However, the Supreme Court held that especially in cases such as this, where the defect is defined by technical, scientific information, the risk-benefit test must apply. The Supreme Court further held that the negligence verdict did not make the instructional error harmless because a “manufacturer is not negligent for designing a reasonably safe product,” and, “in a design-defect case such as this, the risk-benefit test essentially subsumes the issue of negligence.”

WTO partners Theresa Wardon and Ed Stewart were on the original trial team and then led the appeals to the Court of Appeals and Colorado Supreme Court, culminating in Wardon’s oral arguments to the Court in March 2017. Not incidentally, WTO founding partner Malcolm Wheeler authored an amicus brief in the abovementioned Camacho, in which he successfully advocated for the risk-benefit test. The Supreme Court also relied on precedent established by another WTO partner, Hugh Gottschalk, in the 1992 case, Armentrout v. FMC Corp.

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