Strict Products Liability Claims: Not an Enveloping Net of Absolute Liability

January 2016

It might seem that strict products liability claims place manufacturers under an enveloping net of absolute liability, but that is not always the case. Missouri courts continue to recognize that strict products liability claims must be limited in certain logical ways.

A recent example is found in Hopfer v. Nennah Foundry Co., No. ED 101754 (2015), where the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed a defense verdict following a jury trial based on the "compliance with contract specifications" affirmative defense. This defense shields a manufacturer from liability for injuries caused by a design defect in products it manufactures pursuant to plans and specifications supplied by the purchaser. Previous Missouri cases allowed this defense to be raised in situations where a plaintiff asserted products liability claims premised on both strict liability and negligence theories. In Hopfer, however, the plaintiffs asserted only strict liability claims and not a negligence claim. The Court concluded that the compliance with contract specifications defense is available even where the plaintiffs' claims are premised solely on strict liability theories. The Court explained, "Allowing the affirmative defense of compliance with contract specifications by a manufacturer in a products liability action merely places a measured, logical limit on strict liability in order to ensure that strict products liability does not reach the untenable point of holding manufacturers absolutely liable for any and all injuries caused by their products."

Hopfer also rejected, as untenable and completely without merit, the plaintiffs' argument that the Missouri products liability statutes (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.760 et seq.) preclude manufacturers from asserting any affirmative defenses other than those expressly codified in the statutes (e.g., the "state of the art" affirmative defense in § 537.760, and the comparative fault affirmative defense in § 537.765). The Court concluded that nothing in the Missouri statutes remotely suggests, much less clearly indicates, that these statutes were intended to abolish any and all other affirmative defenses that otherwise might be available to a defendant in a strict products liability claim. The Court also said that it is clear that the Missouri legislature enacted these statutes to codify additional affirmative defenses.

The Hopfer Court held that the trial court did not err in basing its jury instruction on the compliance with contract specifications defense. The manufacturer presented substantial testimony, although contested by the plaintiffs, that in manufacturing the allegedly defective product, the manufacturer simply relied on the plans and specifications provided by the Missouri Department of Transportation. As a result, whether the compliance with contract specifications defense operated to preclude the manufacturer's liability was for the jury to decide.

In what appears to be an issue of first impression in Missouri courts, the Hopfer Court also refused to expand the boundaries of strict products liability to include the "prudent-manufacturer" test. This test states that a product is unreasonably dangerous if a reasonably prudent manufacturer would not have produced and marketed the product in the condition that it was in at the time that it was placed into the stream of commerce, assuming the manufacturer had knowledge of the particular risk of harm. The Court, however, declined to adopt the prudent-manufacturer test, stating that Missouri law distinguishes products liability claims premised on strict liability from those based on negligence. More specifically, the Court concluded that a manufacturer's conduct, knowledge and fault in the manufacturing process is not a relevant consideration for the jury in a strict products liability claim, and that adopting the prudent-manufacturer test would expand the law of strict products liability beyond its well-established parameters.