Is Rock Throwing a Criminal Act Worthy of a Liability Claim?
The primary issue concerning the question of whether the criminal nature of rock-throwing affected the foreseeability requirement for plaintiffs’ strict products liability claims. Plaintiffs argued that the criminality of the rock throwing did not require a different standard of foreseeability than if the rock had been cast negligently or by an act of nature. The same standard of foreseeability for strict products liability applies to the risk of the harm, regardless of the source of the risk.
Like truck brakes, windshields on big rig trucks must be designed in anticipation of common road hazards. The very purpose of a windshield is to protect occupants of a motor vehicle from the elements and road debris.
So long as the road hazard is reasonably foreseeable, the manufacturer must take steps to address common risks caused by negligent drivers, debris thrown into roads by acts of nature, and even third-party criminal acts. In the case of a rock hitting a windshield, liability for a defective design does not depend on whether the projectile falls from a rock outcropping, passing gravel truck, or the hands of a juvenile delinquent. A windshield is not any less defective because it is pierced by an intentionally, rather than an unintentionally, thrown rock.
To deny recovery to an injured user of an otherwise defective product simply because a common road hazard was caused by criminal behavior would negate the manufacturers’ duty to design products to account for reasonably foreseeable risks. “[i]n some cases, intentional torts or criminal acts may be foreseeable and, therefore, within the scope of the risk defendant created, and in such a case the defendant may still be liable for the harm to the plaintiff resulting from the intentional or criminal act.” Strict products liability does not depend on the criminal or noncriminal nature of the source of the risk but on its foreseeability.
Foreseeability is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury. “It may be decided as a question of law only if, `under the undisputed facts there is no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.'” Here, it is a question for the trier of fact whether the object in this case — specifically a 2.5 pound chunk of concrete — is a reasonably foreseeable road hazard for a big rig truck to encounter. As the record shows, the frequency of such a road hazard was a contested fact. Thus, we cannot state as a matter of law how heavy, sharp, or large an object the manufacturer must account for in designing windshields.
A vehicle manufacturer’s duty to consider reasonably foreseeable risks does not mean it must design its products “to be built like tanks, with an armored plate instead of a glazing windshield and a periscope to provide visibility,” It is well established that a manufacturer may defeat liability by showing “the benefits of the . . . design outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design . . . .”
About the Author
Attorney Steven Peck has been practicing law since 1981. A former successful business owner, Mr. Peck initially focused his legal career on business law. Within the first three years, after some colleagues and friend’s parents endured nursing home neglect and elder abuse, he continued his education to begin practicing elder law and nursing home abuse law.