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Is a Manufacturer Liable When a Customer Installs a Third-Party Product?

Georgia law holds manufacturers liable if they fail to exercise “reasonable care” when designing or producing its products. In practical terms, this does not mean the product must be 100% safe. Rather, it must be “reasonably safe for intended or foreseeable uses.”

Woods v. ARE Accessories, LLC

When is a product’s use “foreseeable” to the manufacturer? That is a question the Georgia Court of Appeals recently confronted in a product liability case involving a truck cap. The defendant in this case is a popular manufacturer of truck caps–that is, the shells that fit over the flatbed of a pickup truck.

The plaintiff worked for Fayette County Department Fire and Emergency Services. The Department purchased a truck and fitted it with one of the defendant’s truck caps in November 2012. A year later, in November 2013, the Department had a truck bed extender–a roll-out shelf–installed in the vehicle. Although the defendant produced an extender that was fully compatible with its truck cap, the Department decided to use a third-party product instead.

Nine days after installing the third-party extender, the plaintiff’s accident occurred. The plaintiff opened the truck cap to access the contents of the truck bed. The truck cap door failed to stay in its raised position, however, and suddenly came down on the plaintiff’s head. The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant, alleging the defective design of its truck cap caused the accident.

As the Court of Appeals explained, the defendant was not liable under the facts of this case. The principal defect in the plaintiff’s argument for strict liability was the Department’s decision to install the third-party extender in the truck. Here is why. The Department’s own investigation of the accident revealed the third-party extender “hit and dislodged a joint on one of the gas struts” on the truck cap door. This caused the strut to detach and, consequently, the door to fall on the plaintiff.

As mentioned above, the defendant manufactured its own truck bed extender that was specifically designed to fit with its truck cap. This extender apparently would not have hit and dislodged the joint. More to the point, the defendant said it had no evidence prior to the plaintiff’s accident that any kind of truck extender could cause the door of its truck cap to fail.

In response, the plaintiff maintained that it was “reasonably foreseeable” that customers would install third-party truck extenders and, due to the defective design in the truck cap, that would lead to a failure of the truck cap. The Court of Appeals disagreed. It said there was no evidence that the Department’s “misuse” of the truck cap and truck extender was foreseeable by the defendant. Indeed, the undisputed evidence showed the defendant had no knowledge of the third-party manufacturer or its product prior to this litigation. Given all this, the Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit.