School of Law

Products Liability

Final Examination

Mr. Fischer May 3, 1999

8:30 a.m.--10:30 a.m.


1. This examination consists of 3 essay questions and 5 pages (pages 1 through 5). The time suggested for each question indicates its approximate weight.

2. Please use a pen, write legibly, and write on only one side of a bluebook page.

3. Each answer should be self-contained. Thus, you should not "incorporate by reference" anything from one answer to another.

Questions I and II are based on the following facts:

Plaintiff Potts, an employee of Lowtest Coffee (Lowtest), discovered a clog in a quench tank located in the Springfield plant. While working to repair the quench tank, hot molten water and carbon within the quench tank overflowed and landed on plaintiff's back, arms and upper extremities, causing second degree burns over twenty-one percent of plaintiff's body. Potts brings a strict products liability action against Quality Sheet Metal & Plate Mfg., Inc. (Quality), the fabricator of the quench tank. The action is based on design defect and failure to warn.

The quench tank is an integral part of a large, complex manufacturing process which is used to produce decaffeinated coffee beans. The system contains a multiple hearth furnace, a quench tank, and numerous pipes, watering screws, scrubbers and fans. All of those parts must be fully integrated and assembled in order to create a properly working trecar-carbon regeneration system. It is a two-fold system. In the top portion of the system, the ultimate coffee product is made, and a byproduct (carbon) is reclaimed in the lower portion. The quench tank is located in the lower portion where the carbon regeneration process takes place. After the basic coffee product has been made in the top portion, the carbon, which has been heated in the multiple hearth furnace to 1700 degrees fahrenheit, leaves the furnace through a large tube and enters the quench tank. At the same time the molten carbon enters the quench tank, cool water is pumped into the quench tank at the rate of twenty-two gallons per minute. The superheated carbon-water mixture moves through the quench tank for approximately thirty minutes, then exits the tank through two pipelines, and finally comes to rest in separate storage tanks where it is kept for future processing.

The specifications on which Quality bid for the quench tank did not require that the fabricator prepare or install any safety devices. The quench tank fabricated by Quality is best described as a stainless steel tank without any holes in it except for an opening in the top. The tank contains six flanges, which are devices used to hold pipes in place. The quench tank was sold to Lowtest for $7,400. When it was delivered to Lowtest, professional installers had to connect water ingress piping, carbon extrusion piping and water discharge piping before it could be made operational.

Over a five year period, Quality had previously supplied 43 quench tanks to Lowtest to be used in trecar-carbon regeneration systems. The specifications for those earlier systems incorporated three safety devices designed to avoid an overflow of the molten fluid out of the quench tank. These safety devices were to be installed by Lowtest. The devices included a spectacle shut-off valve, a high-level fluid sensor, and an overflow pipe. The spectacle shut-off valve was designed to stop the flow of the molten carbon from leaving the hearth furnace and entering the quench tank whenever personnel were working on the quench tank or associated piping. It was supposed to be located in the chute between the hearth furnace and the quench tank. The high-level fluid sensor was designed to trigger an alarm and light whenever the fluid level in the quench tank reached a dangerous level. The overflow pipe was to be located eight inches below the top of the quench tank and was designed to divert the fluids within the quench tank through a piping system to another location away from the user if the fluids reached a high level within the tank. The specifications for those earlier systems called for the quench tank fabricator (Quality) to cut holes in the tank for the safety devices. Lowtest purchased the three safety devices from other suppliers.

Quality is in the business of welding sheet metal to form tanks and other objects. It is a small family-run business located in a one-story cinder block building, that employs fifteen people, many of whom are family members. Quality was not expected to, and did not have, the experience or the ability to integrate and assemble all the complex parts of the total trecar-carbon regeneration system. The three safety devices could not have been incorporated into the quench tank at Quality's factory. The shut-off valve was not located in or on the quench tank, but rather in the chute between the hearth furnace and the tank. Similarly, installation of the overflow line required that the tank be first installed in Lowtest's plant. Further, Quality lacked the expertise required to attach the safety devices and to integrate the tank into the trecar-carbon regeneration system--a system that was actually composed of separate "systems" interfacing with one another.

The final plans and specifications for the quench tank in question did not call for holes to accommodate any safety devices. Quality asked about this change, and was informed by Lowtest that it decided not to equip future systems with safety devices because the devices were no longer required by government regulation. Lowtest asserted that the safety devices were unnecessary as long as the employees that used the systems were sufficiently careful. It is uncontroverted that the installation of an overflow pipe would have prevented the quench tank from pouring out its molten contents on plaintiff. The evidence shows that, after the repeal of the government regulation, a majority of coffee manufacturers discontinued use of the three safety devices in their trecar-carbon regeneration systems.

The evidence shows that Lowtest extensively trained Plaintiff Potts in the use and maintenance of the earlier model trecar-carbon regeneration systems, and plaintiff was familiar with the three safety devices. Plaintiff also knew that the safety devices on some of the earlier systems were nonfunctional. The system that injured plaintiff had been in use only a few weeks prior to the accident. Plaintiff claims that he did not know that this system was not equipped with the three safety devices. Lowtest disputes this. It claims that it informed plaintiff that the new system was not equipped with the three safety devices. Furtherfore, it claims that anyone familiar with trecar-carbon regeneration systems could tell by an external examination of the machine that it was not equipped with the safety devices.

Essay I

[50 minutes]

The first count of Plaintiff Potts' complaint alleges that the quench tank supplied by defendant Quality was defective in design in two respects. Specification one alleges that the tank did not have holes cut in it to accommodate the three safety devices that were used in earlier trecar-carbon regeneration systems. Specification two alleges that the quench tank was defective because it was sold by itself. It should have been sold only along with a spectacle shut-off valve, a high-level fluid sensor, and an overflow pipe. In other words, Quality should have obtained the three safety devices from other suppliers and sold them to Lowtest along with the quench tank as part of a package deal. The specification alleges that this was necessary because a quench tank with the holes necessary for the installation of the three safety devices is fully functional even if the devices are not installed.

Evaluate this design defect theory of recovery against Quality. Fully state the reasons for your conclusions.

Essay II

[40 minutes]

The second count of Plaintiff Potts' complaint alleges that the quench tank was defective because Quality did not adequately warn Potts. The evidence will show that Quality gave no warnings to either Lowtest or Potts.

Evaluate the failure to warn theory of recovery against Quality. Fully state the reasons for your conclusions.

Essay III

[30 minutes]

A state senator has introduced a bill in the state legislature that provides as follows:

Suppliers of any part of any explosive device that injures a person or harms property is strictly liable for not more than three thousand dollars ($3,000) in actual damages arising from the illegal use of the device; provided, however, that there shall be no liability if, within five days before the explosion, the person harmed tormented or abused the person that set off the bomb.

Evaluate the wisdom of the proposed statute. Address whether the proposal represents good policy and how effective it is likely to be in implementing that policy. Set out any suggestions for modifying the statute that would improve it.