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Application of Prop 51 in Product Liability Cases

October 1, 2004

By: Friedrich W. Seitz and Tina D. Varjian

On October 14, 2004, Murchison & Cumming hosted the first annual Fall Symposium entitled “Product Liability: Strategies For Success.” The following is an excerpt from the seminar handout materials.

On June 3, 1986, California passed Proposition 51 which is also known as The Fair Responsibility Act of 1986 and is codified in Civil Code §§ 1431-1431.5.  Civil Code § 1431.2, was intended to make the tort system more equitable by partially eliminating the “deep pocket rule” of joint liability, which sometimes required a tortfeasor who might only be minimally culpable to bear all of the plaintiff’s damages. Hock v. Allied-Signal, Inc. 24, Cal.App.4th 48 (1994).

Civil Code § 1431.2(a) provides:

“In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for non-economic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint. Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant’s percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.”

In other words, the Fair Responsibility Act preserved the traditional joint and several liability doctrine with respect to a plaintiff’s economic damages, but with respect to noneconomic damages adopted a rule of several liability, providing that each defendant is liable for only that portion of the plaintiff’s noneconomic damages that is commensurate with that defendant’s degree of fault for the injury. 14 Cal Jur 3d (Part 2) § 102 p. 170...

Significant to note, where a manufacturer is sued under a theory of strict products liability and another person or entity is sued for separate acts of negligence and both the defect of the product and the negligent act results in plaintiff’s injury -it appears that Proposition 51 is applicable -although no case is directly on point.  Proposition 51 applies to actions based upon principles of comparative fault and there is long-standing Supreme Court authority allocating fault between strictly liable and negligent defendants. Arena v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 63 Cal.App.4th 1178, 1193 (1998) citing Daly v. General Motors Corp., 20 Cal.3d 725 (1978) and Safeway Stores, Inc. v. Nest-Kart, 21 Cal.3d 322 (1978). Daly court allowed apportionment of fault between a negligent plaintiff and a strictly liable defendant. Safeway court applied comparative fault principles to a strictly liable defendant and a negligent defendant.