Current Issue

Volume 77, Number 4

October 2002

The Rhetoric of Strict Products Liability Versus Negligence: An Empirical Analysis

Richard L. Cupp Jr., Danielle Polage

In defective design and warning cases, courts and commentators increasingly are questioning the substantive distinction between negligence and strict liability causes of action. In 1998, the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability adopted a risk/utility analysis for defective design and warning claims that reflects a strong trend among jurisdictions in two ways. First, it advocated using the risk/utility test regardless of whether plaintiffs label their claims as negligence or strict liability (or, for that matter, implied warranty of merchantability). Second, the Restatement’s risk/utility analysis draws from principles of reasonableness, making strict liability essentially subject to a negligence analysis. In light of courts’ trend toward risk/utility and the Restatement’s position, commentators increasingly have wondered whether a plaintiffs choice between negligence and strict liability in design and warning claims largely amounts to a rhetorical preference. In this Article, Professors Richard L. Cupp Jr. and Danielle Polage present an empirical study of mock jurors that tests whether employing negligence versus strict liability language influences jury decisions when a substantively identical risk/utility standard is used. The authors found support for the perhaps counterintuitive argument that negligence language may favor plaintiffs by drawing on emotionally “hot” notions of fairness and fault, as opposed to the “cold” technical concepts of strict liability. The study found that jurors hearing the case under negligence language were more likely to find the defendant liable, and that they awarded, on average, almost twice the amount of damages compared to their strict liability counterparts. Indeed, although several findings showed advantages to using negligence language or disadvantages to using strict liability language, the study found no obvious rhetorical advantages to using strict liability language. The study thus presents a powerful challenge to the notion that strict liability is generally a pro-plaintiff doctrine under courts’ increasingly dominant approaches to design and warning cases.