Articles Posted in Product Liability

The rise of self-driving cars, which has been pioneered in many ways by the electric car manufacturer Tesla, is a fascinating area of the law that is developing at a rapid pace. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, as long claimed that self-driving cars are safer than those operated by humans. Others, who have been involved in accidents when Tesla’s autopilot feature has allegedly malfunctioned, are not so sure. In some ways, Musk and Tesla are now putting their money where their mouth is, and have announced they will be rolling out insurance policies that take advantage of what they claim are safer driving behaviors.

Insurance is an issue that has plagued Tesla owners in the short history of the company, as they are consistently some of the most expensive vehicles on the road to insure. Musk apparently believes that the vehicles are safer than insurance underwriters give them credit for, and believes that Tesla can lower insurance premiums by issuing their own policies.

One feature that drives the insurance market, and Musk believes should lower premiums is the autopilot, or self-driving feature. Over the past few years, there has been some misunderstanding as to exactly what autopilot technology is. Quite simply, autopilot technology allows the computers in a vehicle to operate the vehicle with minimal input from the driver. Vehicle are able to stop and go on their own, maintain a safe distance from vehicles in front of them, change lanes, and exit roadways.

The rise of the e-cigarettes or vape pens brings with it a host of dangers-and not just those associated with addiction. Increasingly, we are learning that the composition of the e-cigarette or vape pen itself actually makes it dangerous to its users. A recent case out of Texas showed first-hand the dangers of e-cigarettes, and the tragic consequences that can accompany their use. In this instance, a young man was killed after using a vape pen, where the battery failed and caused the device to explode.

The Texas case is not an anomaly, either. In recent years, e-cigarette or vape pen explosions have occurred with rapidly increasing frequency, including 31 incidents within the Navy, many of which occurred due to battery explosions.

Lithium-ion batteries power e-cigarettes or vape pens, and it is these batteries that are largely responsible for the explosions and injuries that e-cigarettes have caused. A report by the US Surgeon General explained that when a lithium battery is overcharged, it can create something known as thermal runaway, which can lead to the battery catching on fire and becoming a projectile.

Last week in California, a jury awarded DeWayne “Lee” Johnson a total of $289 Million in finding that agricultural giant Monsanto hid the dangers of Roundup weed killer.  Johnson worked for a school district in San Francisco, and applied Roundup an estimated 20-30 times per year.  Sadly, Johnson’s trial was expedited because the cancer that he alleges was caused by Roundup, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, has advanced to a stage where his body is covered in lesions and doctors are unsure of his life expectancy.

In reaching their verdict, the jury found that $39 Million was a reasonable amount to compensate the Johnson family for the cancer, which they found was caused by Roundup.  The jury also found that Monsanto acted “with reckless disregard for human life” and awarded him another $250 Million in punitive damages, according to Johnson’s attorney, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  In awarding punitive damages, the jury essentially found that Monsanto was aware of the dangers of Roundup, and consciously chose not to warn consumers of the dangers posed by the product.

While the amount of the verdict may seem high, it is important to put it into context.  The $39 Million was specifically earmarked to “compensate” Johnson for the damage that the jury found Roundup had caused.  Johnson likely offered compelling testimony on the pain that Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has caused to him, and how he suffered for years with cancer that he knew was terminal.  When put into that context, the amount of the verdict quickly seems more reasonable.  The $250 million was specifically entered to “punish” Monsanto and Roundup for hiding the dangers of the product.  Punitive damage awards are not in place to compensate the victim, but to punish the company for hiding a danger or acting recklessly.  The law allows punitive damages for the specific purpose of sending a message to companies that they need to change their practices.

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