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New Test for Strict Liability Lawsuits Allows Evidence of Industry Custom and Practice

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Traditionally, California law prevented parties in a strict liability products action from using a competitor's products to determine whether or not the product at issue was defective. However, with the recent decision by the California Court of Appeals inKim v. Toyota Motor Corporation, such evidence may be admissible. Significantly, to admit the evidence, the Court must find that the evidence is relevant to the lawsuit and is not unduly prejudicial or likely to confuse the issue for the jury.

In Kim v. Toyota Motor Corp., the Plaintiff was driving when he lost control of his vehicle and drove off the road, rolled over, and landed onto an embankment. In his resulting lawsuit, the Plaintiff alleged that his vehicle was defectively designed because it lacked an essential electrical stability control. In light of this contention, Toyota sought to introduce evidence that its vehicle was designed the same, if not better, than its competitors' models and that the designs complied with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. In response, the Plaintiff argued that this information was irrelevant, as it ultimately did not indicate whether the design itself was defective. The trial court found in favor of Toyota, and the information was admitted into evidence during trial. The jury concluded that there was no vehicle defect.

In his appeal, the Plaintiff claimed that such evidence of industry custom and practice is always immaterial and introducing it caused him undue prejudice. Despite his argument, the California Court of Appeals disagreed. In its conclusion, the Court found that the trial court has discretion to determine what is admissible in a strict products liability action. However, the Court stated that such admissibility depends on the nature of the evidence and the purpose for which the party seeking the admission offers the evidence. As a result, the Court broke with the long-standing California rule, which stated that such evidence is never admissible.

Practically, the admissibility of evidence of industry custom and practice ensures a greater emphasis will be placed by all parties on the discovery phase of litigation, as well as on motions in limine in the days leading up to trial. Any party seeking to introduce evidence of industry practice will have to demonstrate its relevance to the Court and be able to counter any claims from the opposing party that it will prejudice or confuse the jury. Therefore, while a party now has the option to try to admit evidence of industry practice and custom in a strict liability action, they must be able to support the evidence to the Court's satisfaction.

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