The Applicability of Risk-Utility Tests and Consumer Expectation Tests in Florida Defective Device Lawsuits

Florida law concerning design defect claims is continuously evolving, and courts have not reached a consensus on which test is appropriate in these matters. In most cases, courts use one of three different product liability tests: the consumer expectations test, the risk-utility test, or the reasonable alternative design test. In a recent opinion, a Florida appellate court considered whether the consumer expectations test or risk-utility test was appropriate in a defective complex medical device lawsuit. The case is based on a wrongful death lawsuit that was filed against several defendants, including a hospital, its surgical team, and the manufacturer of the medical device. The decedent’s estate filed the lawsuit after the victim died while undergoing lung surgery. The plaintiff’s lawsuit against the device manufacturer claimed that the manufacturer was liable for the product’s design defect, failure to warn, and negligence.

After settling with the health care providers, the claim against the manufacturer proceeded to trial. At trial, the plaintiff submitted a jury instruction that stated that the jury could find the defendant liable for an unreasonably dangerous product if the plaintiff established the consumer expectations test or risk-utility test. Florida law provides that the consumer expectation imposes liability if the plaintiff can prove that the product failed to perform as safely as a consumer would expect, if the product is used in a reasonably foreseeable manner. In contrast, the risk-utility test imposes liability if the plaintiff establishes that the risk of danger outweighs the benefit. The defendant proposed the risk-utility test, and the trial court proceeded with that jury instruction. On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the judge overseeing the trial should have provided the jury with a consumer-expectations instruction, and the judge’s failure to do so required a new trial.

The plaintiff argued that previous Florida courts adopted the consumer expectations test in Aubin v. Union Carbide Corp. In this case, the appellate court distinguished the case at hand with the previous ruling, primarily finding that this case involved a medical product that is “too complex” for the consumer expectation test. Further, the prior court found that plaintiffs may opt to proceed with a consumer expectations test for design defect claims, but they did not address whether a medical professional may be considered an “ordinary consumer.” Moreover, even if a portion of the consumer expectations test could apply, the jury instruction would need to address a medical professional’s reasonable expectation. Ultimately, the court determined that the plaintiff’s requested instruction would have only confused the jury, and providing such an instruction would have been a misstatement of the law. As a result, the plaintiff’s appeal was dismissed.

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