Manufacturers Liability In Michigan
As a general rule, "a manufacturer has a duty to design its product to eliminate 'any unreasonable risk of foreseeable injury.'" Ghrist v. Chrysler Corp, 451 Mich. 242, 248; 547 N.W.2d 272 (1996), quoting Prentis v. Yale Mfg Co, 421 Mich. 670, 693; 365 N.W.2d 176 (1984); Bazinau v. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, 233 Mich. App. 743, 757; 593 N.W.2d 219 (1999); Mallard v. Hoffinger Industries, Inc (On Remand), 222 Mich. App. 137, 141; 564 N.W.2d 74 (1997).
The law imposes a greater responsibility on one who manufactures and designs a product because the manufacturer is especially knowledgeable about the product's capabilities and limitations as well as the foreseeability of harm. Ghrist, supra at 247.
Further, the manufacturer is in the best position to effectuate the needed safety-related improvements. Id.
In Fisher v. Johnson Milk Co, Inc, 383 Mich. 158, 160-161; 174 N.W.2d 752 (1970), our Supreme Court, citing Jamieson v. Woodward & Lothrop, 101 U.S. App. D.C. 32, 37; 247 F.2d 23 (1957), established the open and obvious danger doctrine as a limit on a manufacturer's potential liability in products liability cases.
Recognizing that the law does not require that an article be accident-proof or incapable of causing harm, and that users of products must assume some responsibility for their conduct, the Court held that "there is no duty to warn or protect against dangers obvious to all." Fisher, supra at 160.
Subsequently, in Owens v. Allis-Chalmers Corp, 414 Mich. 413, 425; 326 N.W.2d 372 (1982), the Supreme Court limited its holding in Fisher to cases alleging design defects involving simple tools or products.
A simple product is defined as "a simple thing of universally known characteristics, not a device with parts or mechanism, the only danger being not latent but obvious to any possible user ...." Jamieson, supra at 37. the Mallard Court noted that "the Owens Court stated that a manufacturer of a simple product is not required to design safety features to protect users from dangers that are obvious and inherent in the utility of the product." Mallard, supra at 143.
However, despite the Owens Court's apparent approval of the holding in Fisher, the Owens Court then stated that the obviousness of the risks that inhere in some simple tools or products was merely a factor in determining whether such products were unreasonably dangerous. Owens, supra at 425.
"The test, however, is not whether the risks are obvious, but whether the risks were unreasonable in light of the foreseeable injuries." Id.
The Court explained that some "obvious risks may be unreasonable risks, and there is no justification for departing from general negligence . . . principles merely because the dangers are patent." Id.
Thus, a careful reading of Owens reveals that a manufacturer in a case alleging design defects is not absolved of liability simply because the danger associated with the product (simple or nonsimple) is open and obvious.
Several years later, in Glittenberg v. Doughboy Recreational Industries (On Rehearing), 441 Mich. 379, 399; 491 N.W.2d 208 (1992), a personal injury case involving a failure to warn of risks associated with an above-ground swimming pool, the Court held that there was no duty to warn of obvious dangers associated with a simple product.
However, the Glittenberg Court expressly stated that with respect to a manufacturer's duty in cases alleging design defects, its holding "signaled no retreat from Owens":
Our jurisprudence recognizes the well-established rule that there is no duty to warn of dangers that are open and obvious. We have also narrowed application of the no-duty rule to those cases involving "simple tools or products." We have rejected the proposition that the "open and obvious danger" rule is an incantation that obviates the threshold inquiry of duty in design defect cases....
In the design defect context, obvious risks may unreasonably breach the duty to adopt a design that safely and feasibly guards against foreseeable misuse. Because the manufacturer's liability for choice of design is not determined solely by looking at the obvious nature of the alleged defect, obviousness of the danger does not preclude the possibility that an alternative design could reduce the risk of harm at a cost and in a manner that maintains the product's utility. Glittenberg, 441 Mich. at 393-39.