Toyota floor mats and the legal definition of defective products
In a comment thread at Overlawyered, I’ve been debating with an individual about whether the floor mats that were the subject of the Toyota recall are defective. He seems to believe that because the floor mats did in fact protect the carpet, they are not defective. He is not the first person to suggest that if a product does what it was supposed to it is not defective, regardless of whether it injures someone or not. I thought this was a great opportunity to write a blog post explaining the legal definition of defective. (As a brief reminder, nothing written in this post or on this blog is intended to be or is offered as legal advice. If you have a legal question, consult a lawyer.)
Every state has its own product liability laws, but a very prominent group called the American Law Institute (ALI) publishes a series of documents known as Restatements of Law. A Restatement is a concise statement of principles of law. These principles are distilled from cases across the country. One of these Restatements is known as The Restatement (3d) of Torts, and covers product liability. That section of the Restatement was reported by Professors Henderson & Twerski. I was fortunate enough to take a products liability class in which Professor Twerski made an appearance via video conference, and as you would thus imagine, most of the class was dedicated to the Restatement.
Under the Restatement, a product can be defective in three ways. I’m going to use hypothetical and real examples from the Toyota floor mat recall to illustrate.
Manufacturing Defect. If a product “departs from its intended design, even if all possible care was exercised,” it is defective. I don’t know what the manufacturing specifications of the Toyota floor mats are. But let’s assume that they were supposed to be .5 inches tall. If any mats came out taller or shorter than .5 inches tall, then the floor mats are legally defective because they do not meet the manufacturer’s specifications.
Design Defect. A product is defectively designed if “the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design, and failure to use the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.” Let’s break that down a bit. I believe that the Toyota floor mats are defectively designed for the following reasons:
Foreseeable risks: No one can disagree that it is foreseeable to an auto manufacturer that a floor mat will become detached from its mounting mechanism. It is also foreseeable that a detached floor mat could slide forward towards the gas pedal. It is thus also foreseeable that the floor mat could jam under or on top of the gas pedal. So we’ve established that a gas pedal jamming is a foreseeable risk.
Reasonable alternative design: A reasonable alternative design is one that (a) isn’t so expensive that it isn’t practical; (b) doesn’t make the product unsafer in some other critical way, and (c) doesn’t impair the usefulness of the product. Considering that virtually every other auto manufacturer is selling floor mats that don’t jam under the gas pedal, Toyota loses on this prong, too.
Not reasonably safe: Here’s the only area where Toyota has room to argue. The question is whether Toyota’s floor mats are not reasonably safe because they didn’t use a reasonable alternative design. I believe that they are not reasonably safe because the risk of a gas pedal jamming is unreasonable in comparison to the benefit of the product; no one would choose clean carpet over a jammed gas pedal. Put another way, a floor mat that has the potential to jam the gas pedal to the floor is not reasonably safe. Now, some might argue that ANY floor mat could do so. I disagree, and I do so in part because of a video demonstration I saw by an engineer of a competing auto company. First, the engineer replicated the jammed floor mat problem on a Lexus. It was scary how easy it was replicated, actually. Next, the engineer tried to replicate the problem with his brand of vehicle and floor mat. He was unable to do so because (a) the floor mat was not thick enough to jam under the gas pedal, and (b) the spring return mechanism on the gas pedal was so strong that putting the mat on top of the pedal had no effect. Thus, the Toyota floor mats are defectively designed.
Warning Defect. A product is also defective if “the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by reasonable instructions or warnings, and their omission renders the product not reasonably safe.” I think Toyota has this problem too, and here’s why: You can take a floor mat from a Lexus SUV and put it in a Lexus coupe. The retention mechanisms line up, and there is no label or warning on the mat to indicate which vehicle the mat belongs to. An individual could thus buy a set of floor mats that he or she was told is for his coupe, but was actually for the SUV. Because the SUV mat is bigger and thicker, it has a greater potential to jam the gas pedal. Other manufacturers either make sure that the retention mechanisms are not compatible so the mats will not fit, or they put a label on the mats to indicate which vehicle(s) they can be used on.
I’ll be the first to admit that Toyota’s floor mats protected the carpet. So in the lay sense of the word, the mats are not defective. But in the legal sense of the word, I believe they are defective because they carry a substantial risk of jamming a gas pedal, and that risk could be easily avoided with a different design.