Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Flawed instruction on 'reasonable alternative design' requires vacatur of tobacco defense judgment

Plaintiff's decedent started smoking in the early 1960s,
at age 13 or 14, with free samples of Kents.

(David Shay CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)
An error in jury instruction was small but crucial in a Massachusetts tobacco liability case, resulting in partial vacatur in the Appeals Court.

The plaintiff, decedent's representative, alleged design defect as cause of terminal lung cancer. The jury was instructed that the plaintiff had to prove the availability of a reasonable alternative design by the time the plaintiff was addicted.

That instruction described too tight a time frame, the court held. "[T]he jury should have been told to assess whether a reasonable alternative design existed at the time of distribution or sale."

The court explained:

If a manufacturer continues to make and sell a harmful and addictive product even though a safer alternative is available, the fact that the consumer is addicted to the product makes it more—not less—important for the manufacturer to adopt the available safer alternative. The purpose of anchoring liability to the point in time when the defective product is sold or distributed is to give manufacturers an incentive to create safer products [citing, inter alia, the Third Restatement of Torts].... Were we to adopt the defendants' view that liability should attach only up until the point in time a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes, that incentive would be severely diminished, or even eliminated. Such a rule would in essence immunize cigarette manufacturers from liability to addicted persons even though they continue to sell or distribute defective products despite the availability of reasonable alternative designs. We see no reason to limit liability in this way, especially given the addictive nature of cigarettes, the speed with which smokers can become addicted to them, and the years—if not decades—thereafter during which a person continues to smoke and thus remains exposed to the dangers of cigarettes. In this regard, we note further that, as the expert testimony bore out, ... the degree or point of addiction to tobacco may be viewed as a continuum rather than a bright line. For this reason, it is all the more important that manufacturers be encouraged to produce safer, less addictive products at all points in time so as to increase the possibility that an addicted smoker be able to quit.

The court vacated the judgment in favor of defendants insofar as it arose from the erroneous instruction.

The case is Main v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 20-P-459 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 8, 2022). Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel.

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