Tuesday, May 18, 2010, 3:58 PM

COA: Product Modification By A Non-Party Is Not A Defense In Products Liability Suits

Today the COA held that the defense of modification of a product is not available in a products liability suit where the person who modified the product was not a party to the suit at the time of trial. The case is Stark v. Ford Motor Co.

Mr. and Mrs. Starks and their daughter Cheyenne filed suit against Ford seeking damages for injuries to Cheyenne caused by an allegedly defective seatbelt. Ford asserted a defense of "Alteration or Modification of Product" pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 99B-3 and presented evidence at trial that the product had been modified because Cheyenne was wearing the seatbelt with the shoulder portion behind her back.

The COA first held that because Cheyenne was five years old at the time of the accident she was legally incapable of modifying or altering the product under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 99B-3. Ford also claimed the seatbelt modification was made by Mr. Stark, who was not a party to the action. The COA held that because Mr. and Mrs. Stark were not parties to the action at the time of trial, there was no "alteration or modification of the product by a party other than the manufacturer seller that occurred after the product left the control of such manufacturer," and Ford could not utilize the § 99B-3 defense.

Judge Wynn concurred, but wrote separately to explain that in negligence law it does not matter if a third intervening person is a party to the action- "what matters is that the person’s actions constitute intervening negligence insulating the defendant from liability." He also noted that other states do not make any distinctions regarding the identity of the modifier, and that it did not make sense that a manufacturer should be held liable for injuries resulting from a modified product just because the modifier has not been joined in the action. Judge Wynn concluded, however, that the language of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 99B-3 regarding product modifiers was clear here, and did not insulate Ford from liability.

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