Products Liability in New Jersey

Knoster v. Ford Motor Company 2006 WL 2561234 (C.A.3 (N.J.)) is case where the Plaintiff filed claims under both the New Jersey Product Liability Act ("PLA") and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Specifically under the PLA, the plaintiff filed a failure to warn and a design-defect claim. The District Court dismissed the consumer fraud claim and entered judgment in favor of the Defendant based on the jury's verdict. The Plaintiff appealed on a variety of claims. 

In 1999, the Plaintiff's family was driving home from a family picnic during the Fourth-of-July weekend. The Plaintiff's wife was driving their Ford Taurus. As the vehicle approached an intersection, the Plaintiff's wife downshifted; instead of the slowing down, the vehicle accelerated toward the intersection. The plaintiff's wife attempted to slow the car the down by slamming on the breaks; however, her efforts were too late and the car slammed into stone farm building, where the plaintiff lost his life.
Typically, failure-to-warn cases are successful when the Defendant fails to warn of a known danger. Here, the jury inquired whether the failure-to-warn claim should be based on the design of the cruise control system or the event of a sudden acceleration no matter the cause. The court instructed the jury to focus their inquiry solely on the design of the cruise control system. However, the court was mistaken in their response; a failure-to-warn claim does not depend on the design defect. Therefore, the duty to warn involved the danger generally, not a danger with any specific cause.
Further, this Court expanded the scope of a design defect claim. Usually, a design defect claim requires a plaintiff to provide an alternative design to show that the Defendant's failure to use the alternative design made the Defendant's current product not reasonably safe. However, this court cited a New Jersey Supreme Court case to reverse the District Court's holding and allow the plaintiff's to argue res ipsa loquitar, the defect speaks for itself. Under the res ipsa loquitar doctrine, the plaintiff must show: 1) the harm was of a kind that ordinarily occurs as a result of a product defect AND 2) the harm was not solely the result of causes other than product defect existing at the time of sale or distribution. Here, the plaintiff's testimony, the car suddenly accelerated, was enough evidence for an inference of defectiveness.
Finally, the plaintiff's appealed on the District Court's dismissal of the consumer fraud claim because the plaintiff's argued it was separate from the PLA claim. The Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff. Physical damage to the product itself is not included in products liability claims. Therefore, in this case, the Plaintiff's were allowed to sue under consumer fraud to seek damages for the harm caused to the vehicle. 


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