A recent decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal, illustrates
the difficulties faced by companies that try to challenge a
jury's findings. In Stillwell v. World Kitchen
Inc.,1 the plaintiff was injured when a Dutch oven
he was washing broke into four large pieces, severely lacerating
his wrist. The jury awarded damages of $1.1 million less 25% for
the plaintiff's contributory fault. The jury did not find that
there was a manufacturing or design defect, but instead found that
the defendants failed to adequately warn the plaintiffs. The
warning that the product was prone to break if dropped or subjected
to a hard impact was not found on the outside of the box or in the
warning section of the manual, but was instead in the
"Remember" section of the manual.
The jury provided the following answers with respect to the
particulars of its negligence findings: a) the product's
warnings did not clearly state the difference between deep versus
minor scratches; b) the warnings did not identify what constitutes
a deep scratch and when the consumer should contact the
manufacturer; and c) that the warning regarding accidental breakage
from impact and subsequent potential injury should have been
further emphasized in the manual and that warning should have been
placed on the exterior of the box.
The defendants appealed on a number of grounds, including that
there was no evidence to support the finding that the failure to
warn caused or contributed to the accident. The defendants argued
that since there was no evidence of scratches on the pot, a warning
to discontinue use of the pot if it was scratched would have had no
effect. They further argued that a more comprehensive warning would
not have affected the injured plaintiff's wife's behavior,
as she was already extremely safety conscious, nor would it have
affected the injured plaintiff's behavior as he never read the
The Court began its analysis by noting that the standard of
review of jury verdicts is "exceptionally high" and that
a jury's verdict is entitled to a "fair and liberal
interpretation in light of the evidence and of the
circumstances". It then noted that there was expert evidence
that a deep scratch could cause, or be a sign of, internal stress,
and that it appeared that the jury concluded that the breakage
occurred due to a combination of an internal flaw and a physical
impact to the Dutch oven caused by the injured plaintiff's
actions. The Court also found that even though no one noticed a
deep scratch on the Dutch oven, it was open to the jury to find
that the deep scratch could have been present and contributed to
the internal stress.
The Court also accepted the appellant's submission that
there was no direct evidence about how the plaintiffs would have
acted if an adequate warning had been provided, but still held that
the jury was entitled to infer that the injured plaintiff's
wife would not have purchased the cookware if she had been
adequately warned. Given that she was extremely cautious in her use
and care of the product, the Court held that it was open to the
jury to infer that she would not have purchased it had she been
warned that the combination of internal stress and an impact could
cause it to break and cause injury. The Court held that this
finding was not plainly unreasonable and unjust, and the jury was
acting judicially. Therefore, the appeal was dismissed.
This case illustrates the high hurdle that an appellant must
scale in order to set aside a jury decision. Where there was no
evidence of a "deep scratch", it is unclear how a warning
on the side of the box regarding the risk of product breakage in
the presence of a deep scratch would have made a difference to the
plaintiff's actions. However, it is arguable that an
"extremely cautious" person might not have purchased the
cookware if that person was aware of the possibility of breakage as
a result of a hard impact and internal stresses. It shows the
permissible inferences that a jury can make are quite broad, given
that there was no evidence about what the plaintiff's wife
would have done if faced with that particular warning.
1 2014 ONCA 770.
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