Getting Strict with Georgia’s Apportionment Statute: Johns v. Suzuki Motor Corp


By: Janeen Smith

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that Georgia’s apportionment statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, applies to strict products liability claims brought pursuant to Georgia’s product liability statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-1-11. Johns v. Suzuki Motor of Am., ___ Ga. ___ , 2020 Ga. LEXIS 760 (Case No. S19G1478, decided Oct. 19,2020). This means that defense attorneys can ask juries to consider whether a plaintiff in a products liability lawsuit contributed to his or her injuries apportioning fault. As such, the Johns decision is widely considered a net win for the defense. 

Plaintiff/Appellant Adrian Johns was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in August 2013 when his Suzuki motorcycle’s front brake failed suddenly. After Johns returned home, he received a recall notice from his motorcycle’s manufacturer. The recall warned of a safety defect involving his motorcycle’s front brake master cylinder that could increase the risk of a crash. Johns filed a lawsuit against his motorcycle’s manufacturer including a strict liability claim based on a design defect. At trial, the Johns’ theory was that a defect in the front brake (the same one the recall addressed) caused his accident, and the manufacturer had prior knowledge of the defect. The manufacturer argued plaintiff’s negligent operation of the motorcycle caused the accident, or if he did experience brake failure, the condition of the brakes existed as a result of his admitted failure to change the brake fluid for eight years. In other words, the manufacturer maintained the recall was unrelated to plaintiff’s claims.

The jury found in favor of plaintiff on each claim and awarded him $10.5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million to his wife for her loss of consortium claim. The jury assessed 49% fault to plaintiff and 51% to defendants. In light of these findings, the trial court reduced plaintiff’s award to $5,355,000 and his wife’s award to $1,020,000. On appeal, plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by applying Georgia’s apportionment statute to reduce an award in products liability lawsuit. In rejecting plaintiff’s argument, The Supreme Court focused on four main points:

  1. Georgia’s apportionment statute does not create an exception for products liability claims;
  2. Plaintiff relied on case law pre-dating the apportionment statute;
  3. Strict liability and apportionment are compatible because the former involves liability and the latter involves fault; and,
  4. Holding manufacturers “absolutely liable” promotes the policy justifications for strict liability products claim, but the legislature considered this to the extent the application of apportionment effects this policy justification.

The third and fourth points are somewhat related and are perhaps the most interesting parts of the opinion. The Supreme Court pushed back on plaintiff’s argument that applying apportionment to a manufacturer defect claim undermines the strict liability framework by showing the two principles are compatible. First, a plaintiff in a products liability action is still relieved from the burden of showing the defect resulted from the manufacturer’s negligence (the key benefit to a strict liability framework).  Second, fault (the main consideration of apportionment) and liability (the main focus of strict liability) involve different considerations. Liability means “responsible or answerable in law.” Liable, BLACK’S LAW Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). Fault, in this context, focuses on the plaintiff’s “responsib[ility]” and “fault” for the injury claimed. Johns at *14.  As such, a jury can consider a plaintiff’s fault while simultaneously acknowledging a manufacturer’s liability.

This case is another example of the trend towards allowing juries to apportion fault in varying circumstances. 

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