United States: Limits To Admitting Evidence Of Other Accidents In A Products Case

Last Updated: February 27 2017
Article by Kaitlin Del Vecchio Motley

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland recently filed an opinion in a products liability case clarifying the admissibility of certain types of evidence common to product liability cases. Callahan v. Toys "R" US-Delaware, Inc., No. 15-02815-JMC, 2017 WL 219371, at *1-2 (D. Md. Jan. 19, 2017). 1 In Callahan, the court held that the plaintiffs' evidence of other accidents involving a similar type of product were inadmissible because the plaintiffs failed to show that other accidents involved the same product model, the same product defect, and an explanation for the cause of the accident. Accordingly, the court concluded that the plaintiffs could not show that the other accidents and the accident in the present case were substantially similar.

The action arose after an 11-year-old child, T.G., sustained injuries when she was riding her bicycle and the rear brake malfunctioned. The plaintiffs alleged that the product defect may have existed when the bicycle was originally manufactured by Pacific Cycle, Inc. or when the bicycle was finally assembled by Toys "R" US, or both. The plaintiffs sued both companies (hereinafter collectively "the defendants"), bringing claims for strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.

Prior to the commencement of trial, the defendants filed a motion in limine requesting the court to preclude the plaintiffs from offering into evidence other accidents concerning products that were manufactured and sold by the defendants. During discovery, the plaintiffs obtained seven reports of brake failures occurring on the defendants' bicycles. The plaintiffs argued that the other accident reports were relevant because it showed that the defendants failed to assemble its bicycles properly. The defendants, however, averred that this evidence was too dissimilar to the facts at issue, and, therefore, the other accidents were not relevant. Moreover, the defendants argued that admission of the reports would be unfairly prejudicial given the dissimilarity in the accidents.

To admit evidence of other accidents, a plaintiff must prove that the evidence of the other accidents involving the product is "substantially similar" to the accident being litigated. A plaintiff cannot satisfy this burden by merely showing that both claimants alleged a similar type of product defect. Instead, a plaintiff must show the court that the other accidents were likewise caused by the same product defect that allegedly caused the accident in dispute. Such a showing therefore requires a plaintiff to exclude other types of causes of the accident, including user error, misuse of the product, or improper alteration of the product.

When a plaintiff seeks to admit the evidence only to show that a defendant had notice of the product defect, a plaintiff has an easier burden to satisfy. To admit evidence of other accidents for the limited purpose of showing notice, a plaintiff need only demonstrate that the other accidents are "sufficiently similar" to the one at issue.

In Callahan, the court determined that the plaintiffs could not show that the seven reports were substantially similar to T.G.'s accident. Unlike the plaintiffs' allegations, those reports of the other accidents concerned complaints of different bicycle models and involved different brake malfunctions. The court further reasoned that those reports failed to discuss "the cause of the accidents" and did not "implicate Toys 'R' US as the assembler or distributor." Id. at *2. Moreover, the court rejected the plaintiffs' contention that the reports of the other accidents satisfied the more lenient sufficiently similar standard as the plaintiffs failed to show that the accidents involved the same brake malfunction or were caused by a defective brake. As such, the court concluded that the reports were irrelevant and therefore inadmissible.

Even though the reports were irrelevant, the court further concluded that the reports were unreliable. The reports of the other accidents, which were generated for "customer service/satisfaction purposes," were neither challenged nor investigated to confirm the accuracy of the complaints alleged. The court accordingly determined that the unverified reports were unreliable, "particularly when balanced against the potential to mislead and confuse the jury, and unfairly prejudice Defendants." Id. Therefore, the court granted the defendants' motion to exclude any proffer of the other bicycle accidents.

Litigants seeking to exclude evidence of other accidents should look for ways to distinguish those incidents from the accident at issue. The most important consideration to show dissimilarity in the incidents is to demonstrate that the accidents were not caused by the same event. As the Callahan court indicated, if the other accident was caused by the claimant's own misuse or improper alteration, then the other accident will not likely be substantially similar to the alleged accident at issue.


1 The court also addressed other evidentiary issues in its opinion, which are not discussed in this Article.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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