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Legal Memorandum: Contributory Negligence and Products Liability

Issue: Under California law, what effect does a plaintiff’s contributory negligence have in a strict products liability case?

Area of Law: Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Contributory negligence; Strict products liability case; Comparative fault analysis
Jurisdiction: California
Cited Cases: 19 Cal. Rptr. 2d 24
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 04/01/2005

In a strict products liability case, as in an ordinary negligence case, the plaintiff’s contributory negligence is not an absolute defense but his comparative fault may be considered by the fact-finder in apportioning fault under a comparative fault analysis.  Daly v. Gen. Motors Corp., 575 P.2d 1162, 1168-69 (Cal. 1978); DeLeon v. Commercial Mfg. & Supply Co, 195 Cal. Rptr. 867, 872 (Ct. App. 5 Dist. 1983).  The ordinary principles of comparative fault apply to reduce any damage award against the manufacturer by the proportion of the plaintiff’s own fault.  Id; see DaFonte v. Up-Right Inc., 828 P.2d 140, 142 (Cal. 1992) (approving that part of an award in strict products liability case to amount reduced by plaintiff/employee’s own negligence).  

Moreover, if the manufacturer owes a duty to the consumer, but the consumer proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the manufacturer’s breach of duty, secondary assumption of risk is merged into comparative fault scheme so that the factfinder may consider the parties’ relative responsibility in apportioning loss and damage resulting from the injury.  Milwaukee Elec. Tool Corp. v. Superior Court (Vondrasek), 19 Cal. Rptr. 2d 24, 37 (Ct. App. 4 Dist. 1993).

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