26 October 2013

Controversial Court Decisions: O'Brien v. Muskin Corp.

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe controversial, notorious, infamous, and outrageous court decisions. For similar posts, click here.

Case: O'Brien v. Muskin Corp., 94 N.J. 169 (1983).

Facts: O'Brien trespassed at the home of the Henrys and dove into their above ground pool (either from the platform by the pool or from the roof of the adjacent eight-foot high garage) made by Muskin Corp. As O'Brien’s hands hit the vinyl lined pool bottom, they slid apart and he sustained injuries when his head hit the bottom. The water in the pool was filled to a depth of three and one-half feet and a warning decal saying "Do Not Dive" appeared beneath the manufacturer’s logo in letters approximately one-half inch high. O'Brien sued the manufacturer of the pool on the grounds that it was liable for having failed to warn him of the risks of diving into the pool, and that the pool was defectively designed because its bottom had been lined with vinyl.

Trial Court: The trial court determined that O'Brien had failed to prove a design defect in the pool. The jury determined that the pool was defective, but that O'Brien was a trespasser at the time of the accident, thus exculpating the Henrys. Finally, the jury found that O'Brien was guilty of contributory negligence (85% to O'Brien and 15% to Muskin). Thus, under New Jersey's comparative negligence statute, O'Brien was barred from recovery.

Appellate Court: After the Appellate Division ordered a new trial, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that held that even though O'Brien could not show that the vinyl lined pool bottom could be designed more safely, he could still prevail if he could convince a jury that the "risk posed by the pool outweighed its utility."  The Court used a multi-factor risk-utility analysis test, which included examining "[t]he feasibility, on the part of the manufacturer, of spreading the loss by setting the price of the product or carrying liability insurance."As a result, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division's order of a new trial. 

Why It's Controversial: Muskin Corp. was held strictly liable for O'Brien's injuries even though he trespassed onto the Henry's property and dove into a shallow pool despite the posted warning.

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