The Washington Court of Appeals recently ruled that a seller may be the sole party held strictly liable for a manufacturing defect if the product is sold under the seller’s brand or trade name. In 2007, Monika Johnson was riding in downtown Seattle when the carbon fiber fork of her bicycle (which attaches the frame to the wheel) sheared, causing the fork and wheel to become disconnected from the bicycle (and an accident that seriously injured Ms. Johnson). The bicycle was purchased at REI and sold under REI’s brand name, Novara. However, the actual carbon fiber fork that failed was manufactured by another entity, Aprebic Industry Company (the fork did have the Novara brand name on it as well). Ms. Johnson filed a lawsuit that named only REI as a defendant.
REI attempted to shift blame to Aprebic by arguing in a summary judgment motion that jurors should be able to apportion fault between the two companies. The trial court disagreed, and ruled that while REI could still pursue Aprebic (through a third-party complaint) in a severed trial, the jury would not be allowed to attribute fault to anyone other than REI. In Johnson v. Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), the Washington Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling. If jurors were allowed to allocate fault, the Court reasoned, the manufacturer would “necessarily be 100 percent responsible for the defectively manufactured product” and “the product seller would avoid all such liability.” Since Washington’s Product Liability Act (WPLA) explicitly allows for a product seller to be held liable as a manufacturer for defects in the seller’s branded products, the Court concluded it would undermine the WPLA to allow apportionment of fault.
The Johnson case reaffirms that subrogating carriers may have multiple options when pursuing a product defect claim in Washington. In the case of a defect involving a seller’s branded product, the carrier may consider pursuing the manufacturer, the seller, or both.