AKRON-In today's ``jungle-like'' legal arena, major changes in product liability law are coming. Tire manufacturers that study them will be best positioned to defend themselves. That advice was offered by Alvin Weinstein and Norm Carr, who discussed product liability at the International Tire Exhibition and Conference, Sept. 10-12 in Akron.
Mr. Weinstein outlined the three likely major changes:
Plaintiffs challenging the design of a product will have to prove negligence, rather than just strict liability;
Plaintiffs must demonstrate a reasonable alternative design that will prevent or minimize the damage; and
A plaintiff's failure to follow a maker's warning or instructions-if adequate-will reduce or eliminate damage awards.
These changes would represent a shift in the legal framework, which currently allows more leniency to plaintiffs, Mr. Weinstein said. For instance, having to prove negligence would force plaintiffs to prove the manufacturer did something unreasonable in selling the defective product, in addition to just proving it was defective.
``It's much harder for plaintiffs to prove negligence,'' he said. ``So essentially...if your acts are not unreasonable, you can injure people.''
Warnings will carry more weight in court, but tire makers must remember to include harsh environments and foreseeable misuses in instructions for their product.
Mr. Carr discussed a recent precedent that requires courts to become more stringent on determining who is an expert witness and in what areas he/she is knowledgeable.
He said many juries are made up of unemployed, less-educated people who are subject to plaintiffs' plays for sympathy and are less likely to pinpoint shaky expert witnesses and ignore their comments.
The fight to eliminate unqualified or biased expert witnesses has gained steam, he said, since an Alabama federal court recently set a precedent that asks judges to more closely screen expert witnesses.
Courts will use a system called the Daubert Test to determine the qualifications of expert witnesses, including uncovering career evaluations and the reviews of their peers.
Mr. Weinstein cautioned makers not to think these changes will erase all risk.
``Your problems are not so much with the lawyers, present or future laws,'' he said. ``The problem is really with society.
``When something bad happens, it becomes the `Whom can I blame, whom can I sue?' syndrome....So you've got to do your best to know the law and enact policies that will help you deter a plaintiff from making a solid case.''