Under the Tennessee Products Liability Act, plaintiffs used to be required to identify a specific defect or condition that made the product unreasonably dangerous and proximately caused the alleged injuries. But in Hill v. Kia Motors America, Inc., et al., the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals turned this requirement on its head and held that plaintiffs could meet the specific defect element by circumstantial evidence merely supporting an inference of an unspecified defective condition.
Hill was a tragic case about a sudden and unintended incident of vehicular acceleration. Mary Jean Parks was driving her 2008 Kia Optima to the grocery store in December 2015 in unremarkable road conditions. When she entered an intersection, her vehicle suddenly accelerated to 90 miles per hour at over 4,000 revolutions per minute. The car only came to a stop after crashing into a minivan driven by Aaron and Lynetta Hill. Ms. Parks and the Hills’ twin sons did not survive the crash. The Hill family and Ms. Parks’ next-of-kin filed suit against numerous Kia Motors entities (collectively, the “Kia Defendants”).
After the cases were consolidated, the Kia Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and also moved to exclude Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses: Samuel Sero, Tyler Kress, Steven Loudon, and Byron Bloch. The district court granted the motions to exclude Sero and Bloch, but ultimately held that Plaintiffs had not established a genuine dispute of material fact as to causation and granted summary judgment in favor of all Defendants. Plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit considered the proof requirements surrounding the existence of a defect. The court reversed and ultimately held that circumstantial evidence adduced by Plaintiffs was sufficient. This circumstantial evidence included: (1) expert testimony tending to show that a product defect was more likely to have caused the injury than was user error, (2) expert testimony regarding relevant human factors that tended to rule out driver error, (3) inspection evidence tending to rule out pedal misapplication, and (4) eyewitness testimony that the injuries would not have happened absent a defect in the vehicle. In dissent, Judge Bush agreed that the circumstantial evidence supported an inference that an unspecified malfunction occurred in the vehicle but emphasized that the inference was insufficient because it did not establish what specific condition in the product rendered it unreasonably dangerous.
While turning Tennessee’s specific defect requirement on its head, the Sixth Circuit may have opened the door to a flood of litigation based on nothing more than vague theories of overall defective conditions. Plaintiffs need only to tell a “bad product tale” leaving the defendants with an exceedingly difficult task of establishing that their products were not defective overall without an understanding of the specific defect alleged. The decision dilutes the importance of sound expert review focused on identifying and proving a specific defect in any given product and likely expands discovery to any and all aspects of the product’s research, development, and design. It remains to be seen whether the Sixth Circuit’s decision will be contained to the circumstances of the case. We continue to monitor court activity on this issue so check back in for updates on future decisions.