SW Legal studies in Business

Federal Approval of Product Design Provides Defense against Tort Defect Claim
Description

Texas high court held that federal certification of the design of a product was implied to prohibit claims under state law that conflicted with that standard for safety purposes. A consumer could still have a claim if it could be shown there was a defect in manufacturing.

Topic Torts
Key Words

Product Liability, Product Defect, Federal Regulation

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

Six-year-old Brittany Carter was severely burned when her five-year-old brother set fire to her dress with a child-resistant BIC lighter. Their mother sued BIC, claiming Brittany’s injuries resulted from manufacturing and design defects in the lighter. The jury found for the mother; the court of appeals affirmed. BIC appealed.

Decision

Reversed and remanded. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates disposable lighters and adopted regulations requiring them to be child-resistant and details how they meet federal standards. When tested, they must “be resistant to successful operation by at least 85 percent of the child-test panel.” There are also other specific requirements about the design of such lighters. When the BIC lighter was tested, 90 percent of the children could not operate it, and the CPSC certified it for production and sale. State law may not conflict with such federal law if the state law makes it impossible for a party to comply both with federal and state law or state law obstructs the purpose of the federal law. The Consumer Product Safety Act allows state-law tort claims, but does not permit claims that conflict with federal regulation. Hence, CPSC regulation of the design of the lighter is implied to preempt the state-law tort claim here. However, while a design defect claim is preempted, a manufacturing defect claim is not. Such a claim arises when a product deviates from the specifications about how it was intended to be made in such a manner that renders it unreasonably dangerous. So the issue at trial is if there was a manufacturing defect—did the lighter differ, the way it was made, from the original design approved by the CPSC.

Citation

BIC Pen Corp. v. Carter, 251 S.W.3d 500 (Sup. Ct., Tex., 2008)

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