On October 19, 2020, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an Opinion in Johns et al. v. Suzuki Motor Of America, Inc. et al which held that Georgia’s apportionment statute – O.C.G.A.§ 51-12-33(a) – applies to a strict products liability claim under O.C.G.A. § 51-1-11.
In Johns, the plaintiff was seriously injured when the front brake on his Suzuki motorcycle failed suddenly. He later sued the designer and manufacturer of the motorcycle, Suzuki Motor Corporation (SMC) and its wholly-owned subsidiary and American distributor, Suzuki Motor of America Inc. (SMAI), asserting a strict products liability claim based on a design defect, as well as two negligence claims for breach of a continuing duty to warn and negligent recall. The case proceeded to trial and the jury found in favor of Plaintiff on all claims, awarding Plaintiff $10.5 million in compensatory damages. The jury apportioned 49% of the fault to the plaintiff and the remaining 51% to the two defendants (45% to SMC and 6% to SMAI). As a result, the trial court subsequently reduced Plaintiff’s award to $5,355,000.00.
Plaintiff cross-appealed and argued that because their claim was based on strict products liability, the trial court erred in reducing the damages award based on O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(a). The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling and Plaintiff petitioned for Certiorari with the Supreme Court of Georgia.
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the trial court and Court of Appeals’ ruling and held that the plain language of the apportionment statute compelled its application to strict products liability cases. In response to Plaintiff’s argument that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(a) does not apply because neither that provision nor the preamble to the 2005 act of which it was a part expressly mentions strict products liability, the Court held “it is not necessary for the statute (much less its preamble) to recite “strict products liability” to encompass strict products liability claims like [Plaintiff’s] within its broad, and by all appearances applicable, language.” The Court further declined to create an exception to the apportionment statute for strict products liability claims, as urged by the plaintiff.
This decision represents an important victory for product manufacturers, other businesses, and the defense bar.
For questions regarding this Opinion or Drew Eckl & Farnham’s appellate practice, please contact Elissa Haynes.