Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Killed or maimed by a product? The Montana Legislature says, ‘Good luck'

| October 31, 2023 7:00 AM

For the benefit of big out-of-state manufacturers and insurers, the 2023 Montana Legislature turned its back on 50 years of established law and transferred the risk of injury or death from dangerous products onto the backs of Montana taxpayers.

It didn’t take Americans long to figure out that products such as automobiles, trucks, farm equipment and household appliances, when defectively designed or manufactured, cause injury and death.

Early versions of auto windshields shattered into sword-like shards, roofs collapsed and steering wheel posts impaled drivers in collisions. Farmers and ranchers lost feet, hands, arms or legs in equipment with unshielded moving belts, gears, chains and shafts. Loggers and heavy equipment operators were unprotected during rollovers and from falling objects.

Poorly designed household appliances caught fire, caused electrocutions and trapped children inside.

The carnage required action and the law responded more than 60 years ago.

In Montana, both the courts and our legislature imposed strict liability for dangerous products on those manufacturers that caused the problem for these reasons: (1) Manufacturers that place their products on the market in the first place are in the best position to anticipate and guard against the hazards; (2) The average shopper, lulled by fancy marketing, does not have the slightest idea how to determine whether a product is safely designed; (3) Legal accountability discourages the design, manufacture and marketing of defective products; and (4) Manufacturers can insure themselves and distribute the cost among the public efficiently in the pricing of their products.

And here’s what happened: Cars came equipped with safety glass, strong roof pillars, collapsible steering columns and dozens of other safety features. Heavy equipment was designed with rollover and falling object protection.

Guards and disabling switches were placed on exposed augers, belts and moving parts. And refrigerator and freezer doors, held closed by magnets rather than latches, no longer trapped and suffocated toddlers.

In the face of this record, it is shocking that your 2023 legislature not only effectively eliminated strict liability for dangerous products, it also barred all claims against manufacturers filed more than 10 years after the product was first placed on the market.

This means that a defectively designed front-end loader that is first placed on the market in Philadelphia in 2013, is sold brand new to a Montanan today – and kills him tomorrow – his family has no claim against the manufacturer at all. None. Instead, that cost is shifted to his family, and ultimately to the rest of us in the form of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security disability, workers compensation benefits, SNAP benefits, or other welfare programs.

This is the practical, long-term impact of Senate Bill 216, the 2023 legislation that turned its back on five decades of settled Montana law to “favor” powerful out-of-state manufacturers and insurers. It’s anyone’s guess why a Montana representative, senator or political party would give a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to out-of-state manufacturers and insurers, but the consequence of their action is clear. Once again, the out-of-state rich get richer, while hard-working Montanans are told to pick up the tab.

Greg Munro is a retired trial lawyer and law professor specializing in torts and insurance law.