No Duty If the Danger is Open and Obvious

Posted in Georgia Supreme Court decisions,Personal injury,waivers in Georgia on April 19, 2022

What is Georgia’s “Open and Obvious Danger” Rule?

A plaintiff filed a lawsuit after an incident while he was injured while changing the tire of his family’s 2006 Dodge Caravan. There were several motions pending before the Court, including the defendant Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) Motion for Summary Judgment (dismissal). This issue involved Georgia’s “open and obvious danger” rule that says that a manufacturer doesn’t have a duty to warn of an obvious danger or one that’s generally known.

Background

On December 12, 2016, the plaintiff, a minor (meaning he was under the age of 18), and his mother, discovered a bubble in the sidewall of the front passenger tire on their 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan. The plaintiff  was leaving for an Eagle Scout meeting, and he and his mother decided to change the tire before driving the vehicle to Valdosta. The plaintiff was 16, didn’t have a driver’s license, and had never changed a tire. He’d seen his dad change two tire changes in the past.

The plaintiff retrieved the owner’s manual from the vehicle and reviewed the instructions. His mother went to the driver’s side of the vehicle to lower the spare tire to the ground. The spare was located under the vehicle between the driver and passenger seats. She used the tools provided with the vehicle to lower the spare tire, by turning a cable winch mechanism located under the center console of the vehicle. The handle of this winch is also part of another tool that’s designed to help retrieve the spare tire from underneath the vehicle.

After loosening the lug nuts on the front passenger side tire, the plaintiff had to jack up the vehicle to remove the spare tire from underneath the vehicle. The underbody of the van had an exhaust pipe that prevented him from retrieving the tire without jacking the vehicle up. After doing this he tried to retrieve the spare tire but did not use the provided retrieval tool (which was still in his mother ‘s possession).

When he did this, the jack failed, and the van fell off the jack and hit the ground, crushing the boy. He suffered an anoxic brain injury. No witnesses saw the vehicle fall, and he was unable to testify as to exactly what happened at the moment the jack failed.

The plaintiffs brought suit against FCA with claims for manufacturing defects related to the location and installation of the exhaust pipe, which didn’t allow for appropriate ground clearance to retrieve the spare tire without jacking up the vehicle. The plaintiffs also alleged claims of failure to warn and design defect, all related to the placement of the spare tire, the underbody of the vehicle, and the unclear directions for retrieving a spare tire.

The Judge says a Manufacturer has a Duty to Exercise Reasonable care in the Manufacture of its Products

The case went to federal court (as opposed to state court) where United States District Judge Hugh Lawson stated that a manufacturer has a duty to exercise reasonable care in the manufacture of its products so as to make products that are reasonably safe for intended or foreseeable uses. The judge explained that a duty to warn of certain dangers arises when a manufacturer “knows or reasonably should know of a danger” arising from a use of the product. To satisfy the duty to warn, the manufacturer must provide adequate warnings of nonobvious foreseeable dangers from the normal use of its products.

Generally, a manufacturer can breach its duty to warn in two ways:

  • by failing to take adequate measures to communicate the warning to the ultimate user; or
  • by failing ‘to provide a warning that, if communicated, was adequate to apprise the user of the product’s potential risks.

Whether a duty to warn exists depends on the following:

  • the foreseeability of the use in question;
  • the type of danger involved; and
  • the foreseeability of the user’s knowledge of the danger.

The judge note that the Georgia Court of Appeals has stated that these types of matters generally should be resolved by a trial in the ordinary matter, and not on summary adjudication.

Known Danger

Judge Lawson explained that Georgia’s “open and obvious danger” rule provides that the manufacturer doesn’t have a duty to warn of an obvious danger or one that is generally known. Also, the plaintiff bears “the burden of proving that the peril-causing injury is latent, or not patent.” Under this rule, a manufacturer is entitled to a dismissal “in plain and palpable cases,” but in many cases a defense based upon the obvious and common nature of the peril will be a question to be determined by a jury.

Courts determine whether the danger is obvious using an objective view of the product. As such, the subjective perceptions of the user in this regard are irrelevant. Also, the plaintiff’s actual knowledge is irrelevant to a failure to warn claim because a “warning of an obvious and known risk will generally not provide an effective additional measure of safety,” the judge wrote, quoting a 2019 decision.

The danger in this case was the possibility of the vehicle slipping off the jack and falling onto the individual. Objectively speaking, Judge Lawson found that the danger of the car falling off a jack is generally known. However, the plaintiff argued that when following the owner’s manual, a person wouldn’t perceive an obvious danger of the car slipping off the jack.

Summary

Judge Lawson held that a question of fact did exist as to how an objective individual would calculate the danger involved, and whether he or she would consider the danger obvious. The plaintiff’s human factors expert found that because the instructions for the spare tire hook were ambiguous, the location of the tire underneath the car created a likelihood that individuals would place their bodies under the vehicle. In other words, a person following ambiguous instructions wouldn’t have a choice but to reach beneath the vehicle.

According to the expert, a person wouldn’t think that this action was obviously dangerous because the visible ground clearance from the four inflated tires allows “a user [to] believe they can safely reach in under the vehicle.”

As a result, this presented a sufficient question of fact for a jury, and the plaintiffs’ claims weren’t barred by the open and obvious rule. Richardson v. FCA US, LLC, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64495  (M.D. Ga. April 7, 2022).

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