Atlanta, Ga. (October 21, 2020) - On October 19, 2020, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled in Johns v. Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. that a jury can apportion fault to a plaintiff in strict products liability cases.
The traditional common law rule in Georgia had been that comparative negligence was not a defense to strict liability. Plaintiffs' lawyers, aware of this rule, would often dismiss negligence counts (which were subject to a comparative negligence defense) prior to trial and try cases on strict liability claims only, effectively eliminating a defendant's ability to admit evidence of the plaintiff's role in the incident.
The Georgia General Assembly passed comprehensive tort reform legislation in 2005. As one component of that legislation, Georgia adopted a modified comparative fault system that, among other things, requires juries in tort cases to determine the percentage of a plaintiff's fault in causing his or her injuries. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(a). Any amount of damages the jury awards must be reduced by that percentage. Id. The plaintiff is barred from recovery if the jury determines he or she is 50% or more at fault. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(g).
The statute does not explicitly state whether the requirement of apportioning fault to a plaintiff applies to strict liability claims. And although the meaning and application of the statute has been heavily litigated, the Georgia appellate courts had not addressed that specific question prior to Johns.
The Underlying Case
Mr. Johns was injured when the front brakes on his Suzuki motorcycle allegedly failed. He brought products liability claims against two Suzuki entities under both negligence and strict liability theories. Evidence at trial showed that Mr. Johns had never changed the brake fluid during the eight years he owned the motorcycle, contrary to instructions in the owner's manual to change the fluid every two years. The jury found in favor of Mr. Johns, but apportioned 49% of the fault to him, which reduced the award of damages to him accordingly.
Mr. Johns argued on appeal that the trial court erred in allowing the jury to apportion fault to him under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(a). The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's rulings. The Supreme Court of Georgia granted certiorari to decide whether O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(a) applies to strict liability claims.
The Court's Analysis
The Supreme Court of Georgia held that the statute does apply to strict liability claims, and as a result, juries are allowed to consider a strict liability plaintiff's relative fault and to apportion that fault to the plaintiff. The court recognized that the statute, by its plain terms, does not distinguish between different theories of recovery. As a result, strict product liability claims “fall comfortably within the statute's textual ambit.” The statute's text does not exclude strict liability claims, but rather applies without exception to actions “for injury to person,” which would include strict liability actions. The court held the statute supplanted the former common law rule prohibiting evidence of a plaintiff's contributory negligence as a defense to strict liability claims.
Johns provides important clarity on the defenses available to strict liability claims in Georgia and the evidence that will be allowed at trial to support those defenses. Product manufacturers facing strict liability claims can now be sure that any evidence of a plaintiff's role in causing his or her injuries will be heard and considered by the jury, and that any award of damages will be reduced by the percentage of the plaintiff's fault. This will allow manufacturers to better analyze claims and lawsuits, focus discovery, and develop trial strategy.
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