Apr 8

Proving Design Defect in Montana


Products Liability Overview

In the early ’70s, Montana adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A.  Montana law allows for the recovery based on different theories: (1) design defect; (2) manufacturing defect; and (3) failure to warn. See, e.g., MPI2d 7.01 – 7.04.  This entry focuses on the first, design defect.

A product may cause injury because of its design even though it was faultlessly manufactured. In order to recover for such injury, the plaintiff must prove:

  • First, that at the time of sale by the defendant the product was in a defective condition because of its design.
  • Second, that the design of the product caused injury to the plaintiff.

MPI2d 7.02; see also MPI2d 7.00. Thus, proving the product is in a defective condition is separate from proving causation.

The First Step: Proving a Defective Condition

A design defect is one which “presents an unreasonable risk of harm, notwithstanding that it was meticulously made according to the detailed plans and specifications of the manufacturer.” Rix v. General Motors Corp., 222 Mont. 318, 327, 723 P.2d 195, 200 (1986).

In Rix, the Montana Supreme Court discussed the complex theories involved in design defect cases.  Based on that case, there are two separate methods for demonstrating that a product is in a defective condition.  See Rix, 222 Mont. at 327, 723 P.2d at 200.

First, “[a] product is in a defective condition to a user if it is dangerous to an extent beyond that anticipated by the ordinary user.” MPI2d 7.01; McAlpine v. Rhone–Poulenc Ag Co., 2000 MT 383, ¶ 25, 304 Mont. 31, 16 P.3d 1054.

Second, a plaintiff can establish a defective condition based upon the alternative design theory:

  1. A manufacturer who sells a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous because of a design defect is subject to liability for harm thereby caused to the ultimate user.
  2. A product may be in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous if the manufacturer should have used an alternative design…

Rix, 222 Mont. at 328, 723 P.2d at 201-202.

Proving Causation, the Second Step

The adoption of the doctrine of strict liability does not relieve the plaintiff from the burden of proving the defect caused the injury complained of.  Brandenburger, 162 Mont. at 515, 513 P.2d at 274.

As explained in Brandenburger, causation can be established by direct evidence or circumstantial evidence and inferences therefrom. 162 Mont. at 517, 513 P.2d at 274; see also Brown v. N. Am. Mfg. Co., 176 Mont. 98, 112, 576 P.2d 711, 720 (1978) (allowing proof of the subjective elements of causation by circumstantial evidence to prove causation, or the lack thereof).

In its discussion on causation in Brandenburger, the Montana Supreme Court adopted the following standard of proof, which is demonstrative of the type of evidence which can be used to establish causation:

The nature and quality of evidence used in products liability cases to show the defect and the nexus between the defect and the accident naturally varies. The most convincing evidence is an expert’s pinpointing the defect and giving his opinion on the precise cause of the accident after a thorough inspection. If an accident sufficiently destroys the product, or the crucial parts, then an expert’s opinion on the probabilities that a defect caused the accident would be helpful. If no such opinion is possible, as in the present case, the user’s testimony on what happened is another method of proving that the product was defective. If the user is unable to testify, as where the accident killed him or incapacitated him, no other witness was present at the time of the accident, and the product was destroyed, the fact of the accident and the probabilities are all that remain for the party seeking recovery. At this point the plaintiff can attempt to negate the user as the cause and further negate other causes not attributable to the defendant. These kinds of proof introduced alone or cumulatively are evidence which help establish the presence of a defect as the cause of the damage.

Brandenburger, 162 Mont. at 517-18, 513 P.2d at 275.

Find a Montana Products Liability Lawyer

As you can see by this discussion, products liability law is complex.  In fact, many potential plaintiffs may not even be aware that they have a products liability claim.  Work accidents, which are typically covered by workers compensation, may also products liability law.  For that reason, if you have been in a work related accident, you should contact a Montana attorney with experience with products liability law.


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