Georgia Supreme Court Rules Apportionment of “Fault” Applies in Strict Liability Cases
In the case of Johns v. Suzuki Motors of America, Inc. S19G1478 (10/19/2020), the Georgia Supreme Court held that strict liability claims are subject to apportionment for the party's comparative fault. What this means is that traditional notions that fault does not apply in strict liability cases have given way to the idea that fault defenses have wormed their way into the fabric of such claims. Reviewing the decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals, Justice Nahmias -- writing for the majority -- held that the trial court had properly been permitted to consider evidence that the vehicle owner had never changed the brake fluid during the eight years he owned the vehicle that eventually was involved in an accident which included allegations that the brake system was improperly designed and manufactured.
The jury found in favor of Johns and awarded monetary damages. However, the jury apportioned 49% of the fault to the plaintiff/others and 51% to the Suzuki defendants. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the lower court and the appellate court statement that by its terms Section 51-12-33 (a) governs actions “for injury to person.” The fact that the statute does not expressly mention strict product liability, the Court reasoned, was not dispositive.
The Supreme Court dismissed as dicta prior indications that notions of fault or apportionment of fault would not be considered in strict liability claims. The Court explained that considering a plaintiff's responsibility for an injury does not require proof of the manufacturer's negligence. Further, as a policy matter, the Court held it was unwise to relieve users and consumers of all responsibility for safe product use and consumption. Of note, the concept of strict liability as conceived is based on this exact premise – user negligence is to be anticipated and incorporated into the cost of a product.
The case suggests a shift and a further erosion of the notion of strict liability, transaction costs, and absence of fault in such cases. Manufacturers and distributors of products should be forewarned that the landscape in Georgia with regard to liability may have become more favorable to plaintiffs but also be aware of that available defenses such as apportionment of fault (formally known as contributory negligence) are alive and well here in Georgia.